And five and six and seven and eight

I took my ballet kit to work eight weeks ago. It was the first step. But then things got in the way – tight deadlines and writing and winter colds and socialising. It stayed in the bottom drawer of my desk where I should keep my filing, a piece of pink elastic just poking out.

The class on Tuesday wasn’t on at an ideal time and I had too much work to do. But I’d failed to go for eight weeks and so it was time. I wasn’t prepared. I borrowed a hair bobble from a colleague. Bought a bottle of water on the way from a corner shop near the old city-centre neighbourhood I lived in for a while. The smell – newspapers and hot lino – reminded me of those working summers. Office jobs I hated and empty university accommodation.

My old ballet bag had no tights in it. They must be somewhere else – the airing cupboard, maybe? – so I wore my office 120 deniers with a leotard. It didn’t matter. Long gone were the Royal Academy tights and sleek buns. An adults-only class consisted of women in white sports t-shirts and a man in purple leggings.

The man on the front desk was theatrical. I had forgotten about this world. Not the suited world of the law or the thoughtful, serious world of writing, publishing. No – something else entirely. The dance world. The half-sung sentences. Flamboyant gestures as he took my £5.20. The ‘and-5-6-7-8’ he said to his colleague as the till paused then sprung open.

It had been seven years since I last danced, kitchen tendus and Justin Bieber at friends’ weddings aside. Seven years during which I – yes – had been bedridden for one, but also the rest. All the things I’d done since then. Become a lawyer. Got a cat. Written some novels. Bought our house, all by ourselves. In all that time I hadn’t danced. It seems strange to me to consider that now.

And yet. I put my water down on the floor. Straightened up. Rolled my hips. My hand placed itself on the barre. Lightly, like a butterfly just momentarily settling before taking flight again. My old ballet teacher’s voice was in my head immediately: it’s meant for light support, not to be gripped. Thumb up.

The music started. My body knew what to do. I felt my spine pulling up like a piece of string. My arms rounded at the elbows, supported but not rigid. My leg developeed to the front, lower than it used to go, but it felt the same. And – just like that – there were no clients, nobody requiring supervision, no complicated agreements to draft. Not even any writing. Just the music and me.

Ah yes, I found myself thinking. And I am a lawyer and a reader and a writer and a friend and a girlfriend and a daughter but – remember that? Those fifteen hours a week I spent at ballet school for my entire childhood, my adolescence, the first two years of my twenties, gone in a puff of smoke, obscured by glandular fever. There was another me, there, too, hiding behind the big things, the main things. The dancer me. It was nice to see her for a while.

Greek Island Hopping

“Well what would you like to do?” MindReader says to me. He gestures to the panorama around us; the infinity pool, the sea an opaque royal blue, the clifftops.

I think for a moment. I could go and get the honey cake they serve here at 3pm. Or take a walk around the back of the hotel and stroke the Greek kittens. Or swims laps of the pool or read my Kindle in the sun. “Take the lilo down there,” I say, gesturing to the jetty overhanging the sea, “and piss about.”

“Okay,” MindReader says.

The sea isn’t warm or cold. It’s body temperature as we walk down the stairs that lead off the jetty. The metal bannisters become slimy, slick with moss and seaweed, the further down we go. Nobody else is around. MindReader pushes the lilo in front of us, bought yesterday from a precocious ten-year old Greek boy for ten euros at the local shop.

“Where shall we go?” he says.

I point across the bay. There’s a sandy beach about a hundred metres away which isn’t accessible from our hotel. “There,” I say. “It’s a secret beach.”

“Okay,” MindReader says.

I stand in the waist-deep water and look at the lilo. “We should get on it. Like a boat,” I say.


I get on the front. The back flips up behind me, like a tail, and MindReader laughs. “Pull it down,” I say.

“I don’t think I can get on this,” MindReader says. His voice is close to my ear as he tries to leapfrog his way on to the lilo. He misses, splashing down in to the water behind me. “I’ve got a bloody all-inclusive hump,” he says, gesturing to his belly. “Maybe the lilo has a weight limit.”

He attempts to get on again and falls off, pulling me into the tepid water with him. The lilo flips over in the breeze.

“Let’s get on it on the jetty and launch it down the steps,” I say.

“This definitely won’t go wrong,” MindReader says.

But it works and we are on the lilo on the steps and then we are making our way to the beach, the lilo bobbing along in the surf. I think of the figures we must cut against the sky: two people side by side on a lilo, giggling.

“Almost there,” MindReader puffs. He’s been doing most of the work, using his hands as oars and paddling along. “This is like the D-Day landings.”

“You can’t say that,” I say with a laugh. We emerge on to the sandy beach. Up close it’s made of small stones and they cut our toes as we roll off the lilo.

We are stumbling up the beach, giggling. My bikini bottoms have twisted around and I laughingly adjust them.

We look up. There’s a rather upmarket restaurant, its tables underneath parasol palm trees, just in front of us; right on the beach. People are out for lunch, in chinos and shirts. Business lunches. Three-course meals. Wines. “Oh,” MindReader says, stopping dead, his face a few inches from a grumpy man’s. “Er…” MindReader says. His shorts are dripping water droplets rhythmically onto the beach.

We turn around, ignoring their glances. He looks at me. “We can’t get on the lilo here,” he says.

“We can’t get on the lilo,” I say. “Not without the stairs.” We consider sitting down on it on the beach and launching ourselves into the sea, but reason it would be too embarrassing.

We paddle back instead, the lilo a giant float in front of us. A fish brushes past my thighs, and I get on the lilo. MindReader pushes me home.

We still reference its episodes today

I am seventeen and experiencing the strange new joy of getting out of a friend’s car, letting myself in to the house by myself, and perusing what’s in the fridge, the light casting a dark yellow glow on my legs as I stand in front of it.

I can hear Dad in the living room. The fizz of a can of Bass beer being opened. The crack as the aluminium gives. The soft glug into the glass. I know how he will be sitting; right ankle over left, in dark green pyjamas and brown moccasin slippers.

I head in to the living room with a plate of random snacks: Babybels and Ritz crackers and Maltesers.

“Alright,” I say. Dad’s exactly where I suspected he would be. Aslan, our cat, is draped across his knees.

“Where are we at?” Dad says mildly. He doesn’t ask where I’ve been, if I’ve been drinking, if I had a nice time, even. There is only me and him and this midnight moment in 2002.

“Series three,” I say to him. He reaches in front of him and finds it amongst the neatly stacked videos some boyfriend loaned me. Gentlemen callers, Dad called them. The boys.

“Episode five,” I add. “Jen just quit as head cheerleader.”

“I don’t care about Jen. I like Pacey,” Dad says.

He puts Dawson’s Creek in the video player and fast forwards, the people moving like robots on the screen. He doesn’t like Dawson’s Creek, I am sure of it. I didn’t watch television, really, and then I started to, and this was one of the very first things my friends were talking about, said I should watch. Dad, not caring about his own time or his own wants, said okay immediately. We watched three episodes a night all summer, in those small beer-and-cheese fuelled hours.

He pauses it, sips his beer, then looks at me. “Concentrating?” he says.

Love – all

The tennis ball bounces, once, in front of me. I draw my racket back, anticipating the satisfying thump, the reverberation down the length of my arm, but my head is turned by a figure behind MindReader, and I miss it.

It’s a woman in a hijab sitting in a wheelchair. She’s holding a cup of coffee – polystyrene, cheap instant, no doubt, in her lap – in both hands. She’s wearing fashionably oversized glasses and Converse trainers.

“Decided that was too much effort?” my father says to me. I’m on his team, had called ‘mine’ seconds before I abandoned the shot.

I am still staring at the woman, being assaulted by memories from years before. She is sitting how I sat, when I was in such a position. On the literal sidelines of life. Her elbows are resting on her hip bones as she sits, and I remember doing similar things when my arms hurt too much to lift themselves, let alone a cup of coffee. I am reminded of so many occasions when I was she: at MindReader’s sister’s wedding, seven months after glandular fever, when I attended only 25 minutes of a wedding and spent the rest of the day lying down, alone, in an empty hotel nearby. Or that time, four months after glandular fever when MindReader carried me outside and laid me amongst the summer flowers for five minutes, to feel the sun on my skin. Or maybe that time, years after, during my first relapse where I lay down in the disabled toilet after my second legal exam. And all the other times, too: when I was present, but not A1. Having to have regular breaks when shopping. Lying down in the back of the car on the way back from a party. Having a nosebleed in the work toilets during the first year of my training contract; trying to hide the bruises that appeared after my first 12-hour mediation. Or the ambulance ride, the meningitis tests, the AIDS clinics, HIV after HIV after HIV test because my symptoms fit so well. They’re all there, these memories, living in my mind and my body.

“Sorry,” I call.

“You’re alright aren’t you?” MadFather says to me. He saw, I guess, the worst of it, says underneath my eyes went punch-black some afternoons in the early days which I have no memory of; January and February and March of that year all erased as if it was nighttime for three months straight. His words are imbued with the memories, too. I don’t tell him I am looking at the woman in the wheelchair, thinking how lucky I am to have been there and now here, my body arcing in the air as I serve to MindReader after a normal working day, fuelled by too much coffee and not enough sleep.

“Yeah just couldn’t be arsed to get that,” I joke.

“Never mind,” Dad says. “There’s always the next shot.”

As I tilt my head back to serve, watching the ball rise in the air, I can’t help but look behind it and to the woman in the wheelchair. She’s looking at me, her eyes tracking the ball. I let it come down and it bounces in front of me. She smiles, gestures to her friend. Together, they laugh at me, and my crap serving, and I can’t help but throw a smile their way, which they return.

Time well / Spent 

“I’m just knackered,” I say to MindReader. I am lolling on the sofa at ten o’clock on Friday night, my head resting on the cushion as I turn to look at him. “Not physically. Just – spent.” 

“Yes,” MindReader says, with a sympathetic smile. 

“There is no way – is there?” I pick at a bit of egg fried rice on my plate. “To do both easily. With work-life balance.”

“Maybe if you were a shit lawyer. Or only produced a novel every five years.” He reaches over for the remote and switches the television off. Benny comes bounding in from the garden, firm but fair: he would like his dinner now, please. 

I stand and start squeezing a cat food pouch into his bowl. “Plenty of people have big careers and big hobbies,” I say over Benny’s shouts. “Marathon runners.” 

“It’s like that success book you read, isn’t it,” MindReader says. “The sacrifice for you is time. Do you want to give up your limited time for these things?”

I look at him, envious, as I have been many times, of his clear thinking, his logic, his complete non-combative way of expressing himself. But, perhaps most of all, that he does not have this insatiable drive. He is happy as he is, with what he has. 

“It’s not just that…” I say, trying to put it into words. “Not just a few evenings and most weekends spent writing. I can sacrifice that. It’s…” 

I turn away from home and go and put the cat foot packet in the kitchen bin. He’s sitting in the same position when I return. 

It is all the other things, I want to say. How easy that slippery slope really is. From not really turning my phone off to writing three evenings a week, not two, to routinely eating three meals a day at work. To getting the 11pm train three nights running  

 and taking a call on it. To writing a scene in which someone dies on a Saturday morning at 8am after a 60 hour week. To suddenly find myself unable to justify a bath, a bit of telly, a complete meal. It coincided with a bad work patch which I am still orientating myself after. I have resurfaced, but things feel changed. I can barely imagine – to be honest – being in my house at 8 o’clock at night let alone writing. 


“You have no moderation,” MindReader says. I smile at that. We’ve had this discussion a lot. I do things 100% always or 100% never. I binge or abstain. My vices are (private, and) not interesting or dangerous. But nevertheless I am forced to put my phone downstairs on charge overnight because if I don’t I will stay up all night reading the internet because I don’t have a bit of my brain which says “enough!”. 

“If I don’t do all I might do nothing, and stop…” I say. A work email comes on my phone in my pocket and I respond to it. “Same principle,” I say, catching MindReader’s eye. 

“Is it worth it?” MindReader says. “To you?” 

“I have to be a good lawyer and I have to write books. They are more important than the other things… Trivial things. Television.”

“Well then… Easy for me to say,” MindReader says, nodding towards the Candy Crush app that’s always open on his iPad. “But you have to accept that sacrifice.”

It’s easier after that. I get up early and write all day. I didn’t plan to have a Saturday, so I don’t miss it. I enjoy the writing. It is diametrically opposed to my week at work, just me and the quiet words, weaving emotions in my garden. And at the end of it – here, now – I’m another 2,000 words closer to home. 


“We’re homeowners,” I texted MindReader at 4pm on a Wednesday.

Nothing had changed. We’d bought the house we lived in. The walls were still the same – the greenish off-white in the living room that we wanted to paint over, neutral everywhere else. It was still lived in, by us: the scratches on the wooden doorframe leading to the back garden that Benny took his frustrations out on, the lines of white powder in the cracks of the floorboards where I put ant powder down and couldn’t quite vacuum it all up. I stood up, stretched, and touched the wall, just for a second. Nothing had changed, not really – only in theory, only at the Land Registry, on the title deeds – but suddenly we owned it. The wall was solid and cool beneath my hand.

Later on, that evening, as we ate our dinner directly out of the hamper the bank sent us, cross-legged on our living room floor, I explained how the registration process worked to MindReader, and we talked about what we’d do. Cat flaps and painting rooms and getting rid of the bathroom carpet that had gone brown at the edges. Whether we’d knock through the pantry and the kitchen and have one open-plan room downstairs. “I could talk to you, then, while you cook,” I said with a smile, unable to help but grin at the thought of designing a house around the fact that we liked to talk to each other.

“You could,” MindReader said. He nodded once. “And I could watch sport.”

“Yes,” I said, and he covered my hand with his briefly.

The next day, I told my Dad, on the way to work, during our customary morning phone call. “Cool,” he said. “That was quick. Suppose it is – you’re in the legal know.” Mum sent a gift voucher. We bought bed linen from John Lewis, like newly weds.

I caught sight of myself in the work lift on the way home the next night. I looked old. I didn’t mind, though. Things were different. Six months, twelve months, two years ago, I was a trainee, concerned, sometimes, about seat moves and NQ jobs, getting enough experience and making sure I got put in the seats I was interested in. About being on the sports and social committee and making sure everybody got their drinks vouchers at the quarterly drinks. I did tasks well and gave them back, stood with a pad of paper in my heels at supervisors’ desks. I hounded bosses for feedback, wanted to learn, I said.

In the lift, in July 2015, I didn’t look like a trainee anymore. I didn’t know when it happened, but I started dressing differently. I had crow’s feet, too, if I am honest. Lines around my mouth. There were no seat moves, no tasks, no job changes. No time for committees, not really. But there were other things, too. Proper relationships with proper clients. Entire projects driven over the line by me, the responsibility resting – sometimes – only with me. Trainees who tentatively approached my desk and asked if I was too busy to chat to them; would I like a cup of tea. There were late nights, not because a supervisor was cracking the whip, but because I was. A paralegal who stood at my desk, pad of paper in her hands, heels on her feet, and waited for supervision.

I went out that night, Friday. I spoke to another paralegal. She wants a training contract more than anybody. “I don’t know what I’ll do it I don’t get it,” she said. “I’ve got to qualify before I’m thirty.” She gave a half smile, a self-conscious allusion to the fact that I am already there.

“I had that deadline, too,” I said, my mouth twisting. I didn’t want to say and look at me now, with a smug upturned hand, but I did want to say something. “I thought things were – I don’t know. I thought qualifying late blighted things,” I said to her. And it was true, I still hated that I qualified at a time of year sufficiently different from everybody else to raise questions. I was sure people did wonder at my age, the old NQ with the crow’s feet. But I cared less, at this side of the finish line. I remembered those long December evenings when all I did was stress out about qualifying, believing I would never get there, that something (else) would surely go wrong before the 18th. It seemed silly now, now that I was here, my practising certificate locked safely away in my desk drawers. “But I qualified, moved to a much bigger firm, and bought a house – all in five months,” I said. It was true. Those decisions – in the end, after all that angst – came as easily as buying pints of milk. “This time last year I’d ticked no boxes. Now I’ve ticked some.”

I didn’t tell her that being behind didn’t still sting sometimes, or annoy me, or that I would actually quite like to have published a book by the time I was 30, too. I didn’t need to. Nor did I tell her that these changes – these big changes – take some getting used to. She shrugged. “I’m sure you’re right,” she said.

I met MindReader at the station. We got the last train together, then went to McDonalds. “Let’s do something silly,” I said, the strange weight of responsibility of everything weighing on my shoulders. The house completion. My boss’s holiday. A difficult completion, done. We got home, and the cat stole my cheese burger, running off with it like a cartoon character, and we pissed ourselves laughing, and that helped.


“They tried to resuscitate him, but he… well, he died,” I say. There’s no way of saying it lightly, and no way for it not to be a bombshell, but I somehow don’t care: if shocking a stranger is part of the imprint my only nephew left on the world, so be it.

I’m outside, at a wedding. The marquee is off-white against the sky. The air has turned navy blue but right in the corner, near where the sun used to be, the sky is still a lit-up, washed out blue, as if the bleached daylight is determinedly clinging on to one last patch.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” the stranger at the wedding says. I shouldn’t have told her, but I mentioned my niece, and then I couldn’t not tell her. She is embarrassed, I can tell. It is taboo.

We can see the outline of the fairy lights just inside the marquee. They look Christmassy, incongruous against the summer sky. It’s freezing. It’s been a cold spring. All of the women have cardigans on, tightly drawn around their waists. Everything here has been set up for a warm weekend: the croquet on the lawn, unplayed. The wood-fired pizza oven. The cocktails served by hipsters next to a bike with a basket, in mason jars. But I quite like the unseasonal cold.

“Did you see him?” the stranger says to me.

“Sam? A photo,” I say. That’s when I feel the tears budding, ever-present. They have different textures: sometimes a tightness in my throat, sometimes an inexplicable wetness on my cheeks, sometimes a hollow crying that produces nothing at all. “He looks… Looked. Just like my sister,” I say. “My niece. They have these eyes – ” I pause, trying to describe them. “Slanted eyes. Pretty eyes. He had them.”

“Brought you a homemade Baileys,” MindReader says to me, appearing by my side and waving a small bottle with a brown paper tag on it. He’s evidently warm, has taken his jacket off.

“Thanks,” I say. The stranger gives me an embarrassed smile and retreats into the darkness, to the pizza hut with no queue.

“You alright?” MindReader says, but then gets distracted by the prospect of pizza, leaving me standing alone in the night. I look at the pale patch of sky, still light but ever darkening, and raise the miniature bottle, high to the sky, to miniature Sam. I stay standing there, alone, for a long time.

“Goodnight,” I say to him.