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Stop coughing

I have been working in the British Library. I moved from my local library because they were using the ground floor of the library for Tai Chi classes, which were being led by an extremely loud and posh woman, who kept asking everyone in the class if they were all right. I briefly considered joining the class, just so I could tell her that ‘no, actually, I wasn’t all right at all, and that this was a library, not some sort of discotheque,’ but the Tai Chi part looked a little complicated, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I had, previous to the library, worked very happily at my dining room table, but the whole of our living room is treacherous in the winter, being either extremely cold (no heating) or terribly hot (yes heating), and in both states my focus tended to be much more corporeal than cerebral. ‘There is nothing so insistent as the body,’ I thought to myself, as I put my extremely warm head onto my dining room table for a little nap. It is impossible to overestimate how many intelligent thoughts I have just before I fall asleep. I did, briefly, write them all down, but it turned out that was just part of a dream.

Anyway, my flat’s out, and so is the local library (although it may possibly be getting a second chance, as an exercise centre/ way to meet my local community), so I’ve popped along to the British Library. I have only good things to say about it here. The building is beautiful, and easily accessible, and there are ping pong tables in the piazza outside, which as Google and Facebook have taught us, are imperative to all money-making endeavors, and it is filled with studious, non-communicative, non-tai chi doing visitors.

Silence is strictly enforced. Talking is absolutely verboten. Coughing, however, is not. Here, in ascending order, are the most irritating coughs other people can muster:

The lung hacker

(Get yourself to a doctor, I’m too young to die)

The cough and sniff

(Sniffers ought to be banned from all public places)

The Repeat offender

(Just leave the room and have a drink of water, OK?)

The just spit it out cougher

(A refusal to cough properly, once, results instead in a continued barrage of ineffectual, fake-modest mealy-mouthed coughlets.)

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You can’t say that

‘Have you read this?’ I asked, carefully sliding a book out of my flatmate’s bookshelf. ‘Can I borrow it?’ ‘I haven’t read it yet,’ she said. ‘But sure.’ I was surprised, because I don’t like to lend out books until I’ve read them myself, but wasn’t about to argue. ‘You know,’ she said. ‘There’s a word in Japanese that describes people who buy books, but don’t read them, yet keep on buying more.’ ‘That’s awesome,’ I said, trying to slink out of her room without her rescinding her book-loaning offer.

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I couldn’t pay much attention to her at the time (it is harder than one might think, trying to leave a bedroom whilst pretending you are not holding a large hard-backed book), but I’ve been thinking about that Japanese word ever since.

Here, therefore, are some words that don’t exist in English but ought to:

  1. The person who repeatedly buys near-identical versions of the same thing, and then wonders why they don’t have the perfect capsule wardrobe
  2. The feeling of overwhelming rage when hearing the words ‘perfect capsule wardrobe’.
  3. The surreptitious act of checking Tinder in public.
  4. The irresistible attraction of wires and cables (computer, TV, charging) to one another.
  5. The bleakness when faced with the impossibility of ever untangling those wires.
  6. The heart-stopping anxiety of hearing your alarm used as someone else’s ringtone.
  7. The feeling of bliss when you wake up, think you’re late, then realise it’s Saturday
  8. Which is second only to the happiness of watching a teacher wheel a TV into your classroom.
  9. The increasing antsiness of waiting for someone to meet you in a public place, where they might approach from any direction.
  10. Wanting to know if you’re going to be offered pudding, so you can manage your expectations accordingly, but not being able to find a polite way to ask your host.

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The Bitch is Back

The dog is back. This isn’t a euphemistic reference to an old boyfriend, or local cad, although whenever we talk about the dog, I’m singing Elton’s ‘The Bitch is Back’ in my head, which makes it hard to pay close attention to what my flatmates are saying, but I’m 100% certain that the dog is, in fact, a dog. I know this, with great certainty, because I have seen the dog. I have seen the dog once, and heard the dog 45 times, and therefore I noticed when it was gone. ‘The dog’s gone,’ my female flatmate told me, as we walked back last night. ‘I’m worried about it.’ ‘What?’ I said, because I was thinking about how Dusty Springfield did the backing vocals on Elton’s track, and wondering if I should rewatch Twenty Feet from Stardom. ‘Do you think they gave it away?’ she asked. ‘Oh no,’ I said. My flatmate stared at me in confusion.

I was feeling guilty, you see. The dog arrived last month, as part of the new family who live next door. Being a socially responsible and community-minded sort of person, I knew that new people were moving in next door, and had taken great pains to avoid meeting them. For several blissful days, I could tell you absolutely nothing about our new neighbours, except that they seemed to have the same attitude to neighbourliness that I did, and therefore either ignored, or watched in amusement as I drunkenly tried to open my front door with my oyster card, or left home at 11am, merrily pretending I had ‘been up for hours’.

That was before the dog. ‘Hello,’ I shouted as I returned home that evening, having successfully mastered the art of opening my front door. ‘Hello?’ ‘Mmm,’ one of my flatmates mumbled unenthusiastically. Naturally, I followed this invitation into his bedroom. They were standing there, both of them, staring out of the window, and making the sort of cooing sounds one often hears over fiendishly expensive prams, in gastro pubs that you used to be able to visit unscathed. ‘It’s a dog,’ one of them pointed out, when I remained silent. ‘A dog,’ the other repeated, beaming like an idiot.

It was a dog. It was a dog that stayed in the neighbours garden, which our bedrooms overlook, and howled pitifully all day, and all night. It was a dog that my housemates discussed incessantly, exclaiming that it ought to be inside/ walked/ adopted by us. It was a dog that meant our doorbell rang at 9am, waking me up, and a querulous voice asked if it were ‘our dog’, and I took all the pleasure in the world informing her that ‘no, she wanted next door.’ (I haven’t told on someone in years. I had quite forgotten the delicious pleasure).

It was a dog, until, suddenly, it wasn’t. (I have some trouble, even now, acknowledging that other people continue to exist when outside my immediate viewpoint, so I’m not quite ready to give psychological autonomy to a dog). ‘What?’ I repeated. ‘Maybe they got rid of it,’ my flatmate suggested, and I thought, ‘I’m too young for this.’ It was my fault, you see. Ever since the arrival of the dog, I have had nothing but enmity towards it. When it yaps on Sunday morning at 6.30am for a clear 3 or 4 minutes, before I drag a pillow over my face and fall back to sleep, I think nothing but evil towards that dog. I once read a good 3 pages of ‘The Secret’, in the Paddington WH Smiths, so I know that all I have to do is think something to get it. And look where that had gotten me. A homecooked dinner from my flatmate (honestly, I was just sitting in my room, feeling hungry, and he began cooking), and a dead dog.

‘This is terrible,’ I told my flatmate. ‘Um,’ she began. (Looking back at my past comments on the dog, her bewilderment is fairly understandable). I shook my head sadly, to show her that I couldn’t say anything more on the subject. And I didn’t. And now look where we are: 6.30am on a Tuesday, and the Bitch is Back.

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The library people

I’ve had a stressful morning: my flatmate broke our bathroom door (we’re still trying to bottom out why, or what precisely he was doing in the shower, but we are all very grateful that he broke the door, rather than shout for help at 6.30am) and my mother told me that avios miles are ‘worthless’, so all that time on was in vain, but at 10am sharp, the library opens, and everything calmed down.

(For those of you wondering what I did pre-10am, try taking a bathroom door -free shower in a shared flat, and see how efficient you are in the morning).

There are many things I do not like about the library – the designated ‘quiet zones’, for instance, make my head explode, but all of the shuffling and not-even-trying-to-whisper talking is made up for by the library people. I begin by nodding hello to a tiny, perfectly spherical 80 year old woman called Beth (I helped her with her library card last week, almost exclusively so that I could determine her age). Beth has two t-shirts, both XXL. One says, in hot pink: ‘Don’t try to stop me’ and the other, in more muted sparkles, ‘I am a fashion victim.’

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Beth likes to come to the library to read after her early-morning workout. (The library and the gym share a building, along with a café called ‘Delice’, which, as their board explains daily, is because ‘all of the food is delicious’.) She reads teen fiction exclusively, because those are the books kept on the bottom floor, and, obviously, she’s already climbed quite enough stairs at the gym. I regularly offer to collect adult fiction from the 1st floor for her, but Beth has no time for my ‘hilarious’ nonsense and prefers if I don’t linger too long near her sofa.

The sofas on the ground floor of the library are hotly contested real-estate. I have often watched in admiration as Beth fakes a limp to move some non-80- year old person out of her seat. Leaving Beth (although I often peer over the balcony at her, another habit of mine she dislikes intensely), I clamber up to the 1st floor, and sit in my usual seat. There is no squabble about my usual seat, because I get to the library when it opens. There are, however, deep disappointments and barely suppressed rage for other people’s usual seats, when they rock up at 10.05 and discover that some rogue GCSE student is occupying their space.

However, assuming that teenage idleness continues in fine fettle, the rest of my 4-person table is filled up with the usual library people. Who consist firstly of balding middle-aged man (I am not 100% certain what middle-aged means, anymore, now that I’ve read so many articles telling me that 50 is the new 40 etc, but this man is in his mid-40s. Is that middle age? I can’t see myself living past 90, but who knows? Today I did almost 14 minutes of exercise, trying to fix the damn bathroom door). Balding middle aged man wears a white t-shirt (one hopes he has several, but it is hard to tell) and shorts. Always shorts, no matter what hat and jumper combo I myself am modeling. He wears earplugs, and breathes heavily, sniffs almost perpetually and is visited at lunchtime by his girlfriend, who speaks too high and tries to sit on his lap. Balding middle-aged man and I are not friends.

Nap-taking black man and I are friends. We sit opposite one another, and he used to ask me to ‘watch his computer’ when he went to the loo, until I pointed out that it was an ACER, and no-one wanted to steal it. He ‘works’ for approximately 15 minutes of every hour, and fills the remaining 45 minutes with desk napping. We recently had a great moment when I lent him my jumper as a pillow, and then had to sneakily take it back, when I got cold. In unrelated news, nap-taking black man has not been back to the library this week.

The final space on our library table is shared between angry white female, who exclusively looks at books on feminist theatre theory (this is not why she is angry white female. She spends much of her day stalking about the library, frowning hugely and bearing down on people who are whispering, during which time I read great swathes of her books, which are brilliant), and Martin, who is writing what I can genuinely say sounds like the worst sitcom pilot ever.

(Martin once shared a not very good muffin from Delice café with me, and told me both his name and his pilot premise. Neither were particularly inspiring.) Martin and angry white female do not know each other, but I have firm hopes that one morning they will both arrive at the desk spot simultaneously, and the rest of the table will be asked to vote as to who gets to stay. (I will rig the vote, naturally, and ensure that balding middle-aged man gets kicked off). There are other library people, naturally, but I can’t talk about them at the moment, because it’s lunchtime, and I need to go watch stretching Asian man perform his entirely mysterious library tai-chi.

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In which I am suffering in silence

My little sister has gone away, and I have noticed that I am the one making all the effort to contact her. She has, in fact, made almost no attempt to respond to my heartfelt enquiries as to where we keep the washing powder, or to let me know if parmesan can go off. Despite her continued coldness, I miss my little sister most when I’m suffering from one of a hundred mysterious illnesses that plague me on a near-daily basis. I don’t like to make a fuss, so I soldier on bravely, and brush away any of the myriad offers of concern and medical attention that I am sure everyone would love to offer me, if only I would let them.

They can’t, however, because I’m suffering in silence. However, there is simply no point in suffering in silence if people do not know that one is doing exactly that, so I used to tell my sister exactly what was going on. I did so, obviously, so that she could then tell everyone else how brave and stoic I was being. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite like that.

‘I’ve got a tremendously itchy inner ear,’ I told my little sister, years ago in a shared hotel room. ‘Mmm,’ she replied, pretending that it was 2am and that she was asleep. Luckily, I knew that my own sister would never be so callous as to fall asleep when I was suffering so mightily, so I continued. ‘It’s itchy, but it’s inside the ear. So I can feel it itch, but I can’t scratch it,’ I told her. ‘Look.’ I rolled out of my bed and into hers. (This wasn’t difficult, because when I share a hotel room with someone I like to push the twin beds together, precisely in case of situations like these).

‘Aagh,’ my little sister shouted in alarm, as I gently put my ear onto her face. (It was dark, so it was very difficult to determine where her eyes were). ‘I know, right?’ I was quite pleased that she was taking this whole thing so seriously. ‘What shall I do?’

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the answer. She equally was at a loss when I had ‘excessively hot right earlobe’, or ‘left little finger looking a bit fat’ or ‘forever pins and needles’ (the last one was a genuine medical emergency and I thought she was rather brusque when I went to visit her during her A&E shift about it). Looking back, it seems that she has in fact provided me with very little practical or emotional support, and often advised me to ‘shut up’ about things, which was completely counter-intuitive, because I was already being tremendously brave and suffering in silence. Which is why, on reflection, I will not be calling her long-distance to talk about my latest affliction – needing to go to the loo all the time and therefore having to drink excessive amounts of water, to prevent chronic dehydration. Well, not until this evening, anyway. (I have absolutely no idea where we keep the blu-tack).

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Messages to my sister

This one time my little sister went to be a show-off doctor in Africa and I tried to message her. As it turns out, I was sending messages to the wrong number, but I didn’t let her lack of response thwart my efforts at maintaining our sisterness.

Messages to my sister

August 12 2014 Hi it’s me I miss you ok bye

August 13, 2014 Hi its hot here but I can’t find my sunglasses

August 19, 2014 Hi its raining. Sunglasses still missing.

August 21, 2014 Im sick. Is it starve a fever and feed a cold or the other way round? Nevermind, I’ve already finished all the chocolate fingers.

August 22, 2014 Are chocolate fingers allowed on the paleo diet? Asking for a friend.

August 22, 2014 Ps yes, made some new friends while you’ve been away, One’s a caveman. Don’t be jealous.

August 25, 2014 Is it sunny where you are? Is that why you’ve taken my sunglasses?

August 28, 2014 Did you take my toothbrush

August 29, 2014 Not my main one, the spare

September 1, 2014 You might know it as your toothbrush but I usually give it to guys who stay over

September 3, 2014 Ok let me know

September 5, 2014 Have you made any friends yet or are you just playing hard to get?

September 9, 2014 Ps yes, that was me playing hard to get. Loads has happened, I can’t possibly fit it all into this text.

September 11, 2014 Have you taken my winter coat

September 13, 2014 Never mind, found it.

September 16, 2014 You know that miso soup in the cupboard? Are you meant to add water to it? How much?

September 17, 2014 New worst food: miso soup

September 24, 2014 Sorry I haven’t texted for a while. This unknown foreign number keeps calling me, so I’ve put my phone on silent.

September 29, 2014 Mum says you’ve been in contact. I don’t know why you’ve chosen to talk to her, rather than me, but MESSAGE RECEIVED*

*As it turned out, ‘no messages were received’, or at least not by my erstwhile little sister. Luckily I’ve now been given her actual number, although I do occasionally text the other, mystery number. I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that this is probably going to end up being my future husband/ a serial killer. (I have also seen horror movies).

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The dark place with other people

‘So we were at Pyscle,’ my friend began yesterday. ‘Psycle?’ my other friend interrupted. ‘That dark place with other people?’ We all stopped to stare at her in confusion. ‘Well, yes, I suppose so. It’s a spinning class.’ ‘Yes,’ my friend agreed, somewhat hesitantly. ‘But I’ve heard it’s very dark.’ ‘Also,’ I interjected helpfully. ‘That there are other people there.’ My friend attempted to continue her story, but the moment was gone.

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To be fair, other than for expediency, and I suppose, a lack of imagination, there is no reason why we refer to things by their name, rather than their attributes. I, for one, would be delighted to attend any of the below-named exercise classes:

  1. Very cold and with frequent stops. (Running)
  2. Most of time spent checking speed and incline of other people’s treadmills (Running in the gym)
  3. Continued looking at clock to hope torture will end; awkward apologizing for bumping into other people, fervent promises to self to finally learn difference between Left and Right (Dance class)
  4. Existential angst over weight of own arms. How can shoulders possibly be expected to cope? Has anyone ever had their arms fall off? Why is no-one taking my concerns seriously? (Boxing class)
  5. Perpetual irritation that other people are not increasing gears at same rate as self. Often dark. (Spinning class)
  6. How is it when one starts to think about something, it stops working? Am I even breathing at all? Am I dead? Is this hell? (Yoga class)
  7. My machine is wrong. (Pilates class)
  8. I’m far too high and I don’t trust my rope at all (Wall climbing)
  9. You fooled me with your initial caring and friendly outlook and now I hate you and there’s nowhere to hide (PT session)
  10. I used to be much better at this. (Tennis lesson)

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I don’t like everything

I just sent my friend an email: I LIKE EVERYTHING. It was a response to a question about whether I wanted to go to a new show at the Hayward, on Russian political art, and I was feeling particularly expansive. But now, it’s been 3 minutes, she hasn’t replied and I’m becoming increasingly alarmed. I don’t like everything. I barely even like some of the things. I would say, if I had to put a number on it, that I like approximately 43 things. (One of which, it being sunny, which I am currently experiencing, has been entirely undercut by the fact that I can no longer see my screen properly. Which is something I hate. So, actually, it’s more like 42 things). And I would say, if asked to put a number on the things that I hate, that I would be entirely unable to, because they are unquantifiable.

Here are the things I am nervous my friend will now ask me to do, now that I’ve insisted that I like everything:

  1. Go shopping with her for jeans. Jeans shopping is hateful and sadistic and unpleasant, and like all things of that nature, ought to be done privately or online.
  2. Stack the dishwasher. I used to believe (wrongly) that anyone could load a dishwasher. I have fond memories of putting my plate into the dishwasher as a child, even. (For more of these sorts of halcyon recollections, may I direct you to my upcoming autobiography “Mundane things I did as a child”) In recent years, however, it has been pointed out to me that there is a hierarchy of loading, and whatever I was doing was at the bottom. I persisted, however, because well, anti-establishment, until this Summer, when I stood by and watched someone entirely unpack and re-load a fully loaded dishwasher. (I can speak to its fullness, because I was the one who initially stacked it). Realising, in a painful moment of clarity, what people mean when they talk about ‘choosing one’s battles’ (which previously I had believed was the domain of civil war re-enactment societies, and was slightly baffled why young parents were so involved with it all), I simply resolved to stop loading the dishwasher. Which, speaking personally, has been simply marvelous.Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 15.19.03
  3. Replace her kitchen towel. This is an activity that is fraught with anxiety for me, mostly because a lifetime spent watching kitchen towel adverts has led me to believe that she will ask me to justify my brand choice by pouring liquid onto her kitchen counter, and challenging me to mop it up.Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 15.18.21
  4. Play conkers with her. This is a longstanding dislike (naturally, there is an entire chapter devoted to it in “Mundane things I did as a child”), but like all well-borne grudges, is reinvigorated yearly.Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 15.16.21
  5. Get up early.

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It’s the thought that counts

When I was a child, I spent hours and hours making cards for my family. This was because I had endless access to the materials I needed (paper, which I lifted from the printer in my dad’s office, and pens, which I took from my little sister’s pencil case), and almost unlimited time, but also, realistically, because I had no private income. Even as I laboriously attempted to draw a realistic depictions of my ‘family’ (I used the opportunity to add in things that didn’t exist, but I thought we ought to have, such as trampoline in my bedroom, or an older brother, who would teach me how to dive from the top board), I knew that this was only the beginning. Soon, I thought, I would be able to ‘be like mum’, and hastily shove overdue birthday cards into the trolley at M&S, whilst protesting ardently that it ‘wasn’t for Daddy, but don’t tell him’.

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As the above vignette has shown you, my mother wasn’t particularly good at cards. She bought them in a hurry, often in bulk, and paid scant attention to what was written inside them. (My 13th birthday card encouraged me to ‘get well soon,’ which alarmed me enormously, because puberty was frightening enough already). As a reaction, my little sister and I are perpetual card givers: we send thank you cards, personalized birthday cards, postcards to one another whenever we go abroad. So it was growing consternation that we searched for a ‘Sorry for your loss’ card, the day before she left for South Africa. ‘They don’t sell them,’ my little sister informed me. ‘They must,’ I replied staunchly. ‘They sell cards for everything. Look- this one is for someone waiting in for the delivery man. To be fair, they are a modern day hero, but still. A card seems excessive.’ ‘It’s for an expectant mother.’ ‘Well,’ I agreed reluctantly. ‘That’s very confusing.’

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I stared at the expectant mother card, justifying my initial impressions, and suddenly realized what we needed to do. ‘Here you go,’ I said to my little sister, a few minutes later. ‘A lovely home-made sympathy card.’ My little sister looked at the card. ‘Sorry you’re leaving,’ it said, and I had crossed out ‘leaving’, and put ‘left.’ ‘This is not OK,’ she told me. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘I also made this one: “You’ve passed! (Away!)” From the look on my little sister’s face, it will be some time before I return to making homemade cards.

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Obama’s booby-traps

I read a New Yorker quote recently: ‘Obama has been playing the long game on pot’.

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I have a habit of reading things wrong (I suppose some people might call this ‘not being very good at reading’), and recently started to read an article entitled: ‘My friends don’t know I’m a vegetarian’, which I was very interested in, because I read a book about intensive meat farming, and have been trying to secretly reduce the amount of meat I eat, which one might assume, as a fully-formed adult, was well within my capabilities, but which has instead led to quite wonderful conversations with my Mother: 

Mother: What are you going to order?

Me: I’m not sure. Maybe the salad?

Mother: Why?

Me: I’m trying to eat less meat.

Mother: (long pause) How about the lamb.

 I started the article, therefore, with the expectation that the author would finally explain how one manages this sneaky transition, only to be presented with an extremely boring tale of one girl’s virginity. ‘I really hope she stops talking about all the sex she’s not having soon,’ I thought. I had a fleeting panic that this was the warning part of the article: reduce meat at your peril. But I got to the very last word without her ever mentioning how to explain that lamb, too, is intensively farmed, and flicking back to the top of the piece realized that the title of the piece was actually: ‘My friends don’t know I’m a virgin.’

So when I saw the New Yorker pullout I made sure to re-read it, just to check. But no, there it was: Obama has been playing the long game on pot. Which startled me, somewhat, because my own experience of people who play ‘the long game’ (a game I myself would love to play, but can’t, because ‘being the type of person who plays the long game’ is yet another thing on a long list of things I am not, sitting comfortably alongside ‘being mysterious’ and ‘able to eat food without dropping it on self’) is that they play it for slightly more important things than marijuana. (Sex). So I was interested, naturally, and clicked on the article to read more.

‘Obama has been playing the long game on pot, much as he has on some other booby-trapped issues.’ ‘Aha,’ I thought to myself, equilibrium returned. ‘That’s why it pays to read things properly.’

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