In the meantime

In the meantime, I have to live my life. Isn’t that what you always tell me? Isn’t that what you say, to live for now, in the present moment? But there’s that word: present. Where are you?

I went away, but I took you with me. I thought you wanted to come. I thought I knew about you and me and now, the insignificance of time and places, the perfect continuum of our unbreakable bond. But I didn’t know there was a meantime. I thought now was a constant thing, stretching endlessly from moment to moment, seamless. But nothing is unbreakable, and something broke. And maybe there will come a day when we’ll put it back together, with seams of gold to remind us of our history and everything we’ve overcome, like the Japanese repair their broken things, and it will be beautiful. But now is the meantime, and I’m slipping through the cracks.

How long did I think my imported love would keep? How long did I think it would translate, in this land of foreign words? It’s a different alphabet here: some of the letters do not correspond. Some of the letters are orphaned; they don’t make it across the transition, the divide. There are too many gaps where the words used to be; there is no shoulder to rest my head on. I’m falling through the cracks, and you’re letting me. You’re letting me slip away, but you won’t let me go.

You are my phantom limb and you cripple me with the ghost of your presence. I’m always there, you say, and I know you are but I can’t see you and there’s a twitch where you should, you ought to be. And when I reach out to touch you: nothing – just the echo of our untranslatable words. Love is a blessing, in all of its forms, but my fingers need skin to slide across, my head needs a shoulder to rest on. My body needs a body to click into. Is that too commonplace for our extraordinary love? Is that too physical, too tangible for our higher concepts? Higher up, our bond is unbreakable, but down here, where I place my feet, I am made of flesh and dirt and desire. There is no common place for you and me; not here, in the meantime of now. But this is where I need to be.

There are twitches of pleasure, here. There is reaching out and touching someone; there is skin against skin. There are words that are said simply, words that correspond to common places and times. There is common ground, and dirt and soil and sand: things tangible, unbroken, well kept. You cannot keep me with higher concepts alone; you cannot leave me alone to see where I fit in the cracks. But no bond is freedom, if it binds.

You are my phantom limb, and I must learn to stand without you. You are my sunrise and the colours that make postcards of the sky at the end of my day, but it is June now, and the days are long. There is a lot of meantime.

Nothing is unbreakable, and broken things can be repaired, with gold and history and time. But in the meantime I stand here, without you, flesh and feelings in a language you do not understand. I do not care to translate them; I am slipping away and I don’t want to be stopped. I don’t want to be kept with higher concepts and ghosts and the beautiful golden seams of a love repaired; I don’t want to be bound to that. I am too alive, and the days are long. I don’t want to wait for postcards; I don’t want to wait for nothing. I want to reach out and touch someone; I want the common ground and the dirt on my feet and the twist in my stomach and the words that correspond to how I feel. I want a tangible love, this time. And you, my love, my higher, extraordinary love: you’re always there, but you’re not here. Where are you? It’s only the echo of your words that reaches me, and I won’t bind you to promises imported from the past. Now, this time, it’s me that’s letting you go, as I slip through the cracks that have yet to be sealed with gold.

For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life

For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life

What does it mean, to live a deliberate life?

I use that term, but I’m still trying to figure it out. And I think that’s the point, essentially: that we’re always trying to figure it out. All of it. Who we are and where we belong, and whether those things are fixed or fluid, and whether we’re allowed to change. What it means to be alive.

Torn between the two extremes of her personality, City Girl, the streetwise arsehole Londoner who subsists on traffic fumes and black takeaway coffee, and the mellow, nature-loving Sifnos Chick, who has found peace on a small island where there are barely any streets to be wise on, Daphne explores the contradictions that are inherent in all of us, as we strive to find our balance in a seesaw world; to find a life that makes sense to us and a place where we belong.

Written in Daphne’s signature confusion of memoir, reflective essay and travel writing, and as much a sequel to 100 days of solitude as a standalone collection, For Now contains 27 stories of an ordinary life lived deliberately. Stories that could have been told differently or not at all, stories with a deliberate twist to allow for the extraordinary moments to break through the mundane and be noticed, and add up to a meaningful life.


For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, or read for free on Kindle Unlimited.

Fuck you, I’ll be happy anyway

Certain fundamental things that we’d come to rely on – the safety nets of our “civilised” societies – are coming apart, and it now seems that anything can happen, and it can happen to us. The paradigms are shifting and the safety nets are full of holes: anything can happen. And where does that leave us?

There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.

(Some thoughts on happiness)

These are strange days we’re living in, and the general consensus is that everything’s going to shit – to put it philosophically. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re looking around and seeing a world that you don’t quite recognise, a world that makes increasingly less sense. Most of our countries are in crisis. Certain fundamental things that we’d come to rely on – the safety nets of our “civilised” societies – are coming apart, and it now seems that anything can happen, and it can happen to us. “They won’t do it,” I said about Brexit, but they did. “They won’t do it,” I said about Trump, but they did. The paradigms are shifting and the safety nets are full of holes: anything can happen. And where does that leave us?

It leaves exactly where we’ve always been: responsible for our own sanity, our own attitudes, our own happiness. In charge of who we want to be in this world, and what we choose to put into it. There’s enough misery around; enough fear, despair and negativity. We are inundated with it, daily, on the news, on the social media, on the streets. And forgive me if I’m wrong, forgive me if I’m insensitive or naive, but I just cannot see how adding more negativity to the mix, how perpetuating it will make the situation any better. When we can choose, instead, to be as happy as possible despite it, when we can be aware of the shit that’s going down but still find happiness and positivity where they can be found. Because they can be found. It really is a choice that we make, for ourselves and those around us. Because happiness is cumulative and it spreads. And that’s a small way to make this crazy world a slightly better place. Where anything can happen.

So when everything around me is falling apart, when people are crying and dying and blaming each other and living in constant fear of darker tomorrows and I post photos of sunsets and horizons and mountaintops and talk about happiness, I’m not showing off; I’m not being insensitive or oblivious. I’m trying to remind myself and anyone who sees my posts that happiness still exists in these things. That peace can be found, even if momentarily. I’m scared too, but then I look at the place where the mountains meet the sky and for a moment everything is OK. And those moments add up, and they become an antidote to the fear and the despair – if we let them. So I’ll keep looking at mountains for as long as there are mountains to look at, and I’ll keep talking about happiness for as long as I still have a voice. Because yes, I know everything’s going to shit, but fuck you, I’ll be happy anyway. How about you?


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24: All Mod Cons vs The Elements


This is an ode to off-season island living. This could well be a warning to anyone contemplating such a thing. This might be a test, in the tradition of Hercules’ Labours, though I wasn’t aware that there was anything to prove.

An epic battle took place in Sifnos this week, a battle of almost Homeric proportions. It was All Mod Cons versus The Elements. Electricity, Plumbing and Telecoms testing their strength against Earth, Wind and Water (with Fire sadly absent, as my chimney doesn’t work), and one semi-reclusive writer in the middle, mostly unwashed, trying to either make sense or art out of it. It was a lesson.

It began last Wednesday, in the bathroom. Our lovely, modern wet room type of a bathroom, where the shower area is only delineated by the curtain hanging around it, and sloping tiles lead the water into the drain. Wonderful in summer. Not so much in winter, when cold ceramic tiles, two external walls and a draughty window make my ninety-second showers even less of a pleasure than they sound. (Ninety seconds, incidentally, is precisely all the hot water I get. At ninety-one it turns instantly cold.) On this occasion, however, around midway through the experience, I enjoyed the very pleasant sensation of warm, soapy water pooling around my feet. It took a few seconds for logic to break through the pleasure response in my brain and nudge me with the terrifying implications: warm water pooling around my feet. As in: not draining. I splashed around in total panic, washed the shampoo out of my hair, turned the tap off and watched miserably as the water spread out and my wet room lived up to its name as never before. I mopped it up as best I could, delighted at all the extra humidity I’d invited into my home on this already wet day, and pushed aside thoughts of over-full septic tanks as the water, slowly, showed signs of draining away. I practised the ancient art of Not Thinking About It, and carried on with my day.

On Thursday morning, the fun happened when I flushed the toilet. The water poured into the bowl, and rose and rose and rose, and I watched in utter horror and prayed in my head to the island gods and the fairies of rural septic tanks and even muttered some words out loud because there was no one there to judge me except the cats, and they judge me anyway, and I mentally ran through all the times I’d broken the cardinal rule of Greek island living (“Never flush paper down the toilet”, and variations thereof) and concluded indignantly that it really wasn’t that many, I mean come on, this isn’t my fault! and I held my breath as the rising water reached the brim, and stopped. One of the cats, who’d been watching this scene unfold from the bathroom rug, padded up to the toilet bowl, put his paws up on the seat and inspected the contents with mild interest. He gave me a look that clearly conveyed the sentiment you’re screwed, and stalked off to play with an almond.
    I called Antonis the plumber. I was surprised when he picked up; I’ve been borderline stalking him for the last few weeks, and I’m sure, by now, the sight of my number flashing upon his screen fills him with dread. The poor, kind man, upon hearing that I couldn’t use my fireplace because the chimney had totally failed at its job of drawing the smoke out, had offered to order and install a spinny gadget thingy that would assist it with said task, and prevent my death from CO2 poisoning. So far, so good, except no: so far, close to six weeks later, no gadget thingy had materialised, on account of a satanic combination of bad weather (cancelled boats), port strikes (cancelled boats), the Christmas holidays (nobody cares about your chimney gadget), and a fairly typical lack of urgency, overall. Basically, not so good. Hence the stalking.
    ‘It’s me again!’ I announced brightly. ‘But it’s not about the thingy this time!’
    ‘Right,’ he said, with understandable reservation.
    ‘I think my septic tank wants something,’ I continued.
    To his credit, Antonis appeared totally unfazed by this slightly unconventional request for his services. ‘Like what?’
    ‘Like maybe, I think, to overflow?’ I described the situation, and added my tentative diagnosis that the septic tank and its “absorption field” (I looked it up) had become oversaturated as a result of heavy rainfall. Whereupon Antonis emitted a most worrying array of sounds – grunts, gasps and muttered curses – mumbled something about pumping it out as a matter of the utmost urgency, and then cheerfully bade me farewell with no indication as to when this very urgent activity might take place. I was left holding the phone and repeating mantras of patience, and letting go of the need to control. Three cats gathered around my feet in a semi-circle and judged me quietly. I threatened to withhold their food if they didn’t improve their attitude, but I didn’t mean it.

The following day was the sixth of January: Epiphany. A massive religious and national holiday. The Festival of Lights except, when I woke up and reached for the switch by my bed, there was none. No light, no heat, no internet. No coffee. I threw some water on my face and some layers on over my pyjamas, and took to the streets. I banged on Manolis’ door but there was no response, so I continued down to Vangelia’s.
    ‘Do you have light?’ I greeted her at her kitchen door.
    ‘No light,’ she confirmed. ‘No one has light.’ She rattled off a list of names from the village who also shared this predicament while clearing a space for me at the kitchen table, randomly pushing objects aside. ‘Come in. Sit.’
    I did as I was told. ‘Coffee? I have a little gas stove. I made mine already, look.’ She swirled her coffee around in her mug, to demonstrate.
    ‘Oh god, yes please!’ I almost cried with gratitude as the Greek coffee began to bubble up in the pot, releasing its life-saving aroma into the dark kitchen. Vangelia mumbled highlights of neighbourhood news, health complaints, laments about the weather, her pension and the sorry state of our electricity transformers, even managing a bit of product placement inspired by the latest offers in her son’s shop, flitting from one subject to another as she flitted about the room, from stove to fridge to various cupboards, to produce the usual array of sweet and savoury offerings that she piled up high in front of me, and which included, on this occasion: four giants chunks of vassilopita cake, an industrial-sized tub brimming with savoury biscuits and rusks, several traditional Christmas melomakarona biscuits, homemade goat’s cheese, and a tin of condensed milk. ‘Eat,’ she said.
    ‘Thank you,’ I said meekly, almost completely obscured by this tower of treats.
    Our Powercut Party was gradually joined by most of the remaining residents of the village who, one by one, drifted to Vangelia’s kitchen and stuck their heads round the door; they asked the same question, ‘Do you have light?’, and received the same response, to the word. Chairs and stools were pulled up, more coffee brewed, more space cleared and more food items added to the table. Neighbourhood gossip flowed freely in that crazy lyrical Sifnos dialect that I am slowly coming to understand. I sat back on my corner of the divan, sipping my second coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, and let the banter wash over me, smiling at intervals, and joining in with the laughter, the head-shaking and the tutting where appropriate, but I said very little. This was my place: in the corner, on the margins of this community, accepted and given refuge from the dark and fattened up with treats, and added to the list of names who had no light, but quiet, unobtrusive; like a stray cat that you’ve let in from the cold and that you’ve grown to love, reluctantly, despite its wet paws and vagabond ways, but isn’t quite your pet. It could take off again, on any day, just like it came. But, unlike the cats: grateful. For the privilege of this corner, for the warmth that didn’t come from Vangelia’s stone-cold three-bar electric heater, still plugged in and waiting for the power to return. I had no tokens of gossip to give them, these people who’ve widened their circle to make room for me, nothing to elicit those rounds of raucous laughter and enthusiastic head-shaking that everyone else brought to the table. I raised a few smiles by pointing out the irony of this day being the Festival of Lights; I tried to make myself useful by calling DEI, the electricity company, to check on the progress of the repairs and, later, by bringing Vangelia a small jar of St. John’s Wart oil that I thought might help with a burn on her hand. But Vangelia outdid me, with her casual kindness, by sending me home, once the power had been restored, with a bagful of cake and biscuits and a tupperware box stuffed full of slabs of home-baked lasagne.

Home. Where, after I plugged all my heating appliances back in and turned on several lights, just because I could, I beheld The Leaning Tower of Sifnos. This local landmark was, in fact, a telephone pole installed in my field and connecting me and several neighbours to the telecoms network by means of half a dozen cables stretching out in various directions. And which had enjoyed a fairly upright position in this life until this morning, when the storm that had knocked our power out had apparently taken a swipe at this guy as well, and he was now dangling over my vegetable patch. This was not a sight that gladdened my heart. I contemplated life without the internet, and then seriously considered hanging myself from one of the looser telephone cables, tantalisingly within arm’s reach.
    But I still have things to live for, so I decided, instead, to take positive action. I tried several numbers for OTE, the Greek telecoms company. One was disconnected; another just rang and rang. All the others featured a stern, recorded message insisting that I call 13888, the general fault-reporting helpline. I gave in, bracing myself for the hilarity that was certain to ensue. I wasn’t disappointed. After patiently listening to all the recorded options, none of which included “telephone pole leaning precariously over your rocket bed”, I selected “fault on the line you are calling from” and was subjected to an automated check that established my line was, in fact, faultless. I was instructed to hold for an actual person who would deal with this baffling paradox.
    ‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘What can I help you with?’ She didn’t sound too enthusiastic, understandably, perhaps, given that 1) she had drawn the short straw and was on shift on a national holiday and 2) she had me pegged as a troublemaker, calling to be judgmental about a telephone line that was clearly operational.
    ‘Good morning,’ I replied. ‘Chronia polla!’ (“Many years”: all-purpose wish for national, religious and personal celebrations.) I explained that I was trying to get hold of someone in Sifnos, but had been directed to this helpline.
    ‘OK,’ she said drily, not keen on encouraging me.
    ‘It’s just that I’ve got one your telephone poles on my property, and we’ve had bad weather so now it’s tipped over to the side and I’m worried it’s going to go down and take the telecoms of the entire village with it.’ I delivered this in one breath, and added ‘So I thought I should report it’.
    A pause. ‘Indeed. What is the address?’
    ‘There is no address,’ I said apologetically. ‘I’m in Sifnos.’
    It was as if I hadn’t spoken. ‘But what is the address of your property where the pole is located?’ Slowly, Athenian to resident of Sifnos – wherever the fuck that was – who was obviously a bit rural and struggled to grasp basic concepts of civilised society.
    ‘Overgrown field, Eleimonas, Sifnos,’ I supplied, deadpan, as Sifnos Chick took over to stand up for all of us rurals who existed outside the tidy realm of street addresses and postcodes. It did not go down well.
    ‘Um,’ said the lady.
    ‘Haha,’ I relented, glaring at Sifnos Chick to silence her. ‘I’m sorry. I was trying to be funny. There really is no address. I’m in a small village.’
    OTE Lady recovered somewhat; enough to ask whether the pole was visible from the street. Desperately trying to snatch some order out of this chaos.
    ‘Well.’ Awkward! ‘There is no street, as such.’ I was a little worried for her then, that this might be the final stroke that would tip her over, much like the telephone pole that I was still no closer to setting upright. We both sighed.
    ‘Look,’ I said reasonably, ‘I’m sure if you pass this on to someone on the island, they’ll know where to find me.’
    ‘Yes,’ she agreed, sounding marginally less deranged. ‘I have logged the issue in our system. We will be in touch.’
    I thanked her, and wished her chronia polla again, out loud, and then I wished her well, silently, in my head, because it wasn’t her fault that islands and villages exist alongside cities, or that each of us exists within the specific context that we understand. City Girl reminded me of the days, not long ago, when the absence of a postcode meant you were nowhere at all, and I nodded as somewhere outside my window a telephone pole swayed gently in the wind.

The next morning, the Saturday, an electricity pole went down and plunged the entire island into cold, damp darkness. I was amused and also patently not amused when I was thus informed by the dude on phone duty at the local DEI office. The “click and nothingness” exercise felt too much like Groundhog Day on this second day running. I wasn’t up for another full-on Powercut Party, so I gatecrashed Manolis’ morning coffee, instead. He is a private man, quietly content in his own company, but he received me very graciously and provided only the essentials: a large cup of Greek coffee and an ashtray. He muttered something about biscuits, almost as awkward about the formalities of impromptu visitor hospitality as I am, but I shook my head, held up my cigarette and touched the brim of my cup. ‘This is exactly what I need.’
    He smiled. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, lighting his own cigarette and taking a sip of his coffee. ‘This is all we need.’
    We sat in companionable silence, only a little brittle, and broken, occasionally, by references to topics of mutual interest, such as the weather and our joint-custody cats. Who, we observed philosophically, were not at all bothered by the lack of electrical current flowing into our homes. We let that sink in for a while and made a comment about the things we take for granted, as we warmed our hands on our coffee cups. Manolis reminisced about the days when domestic power was only supplied for a couple of hours each day and before, when there was no power at all. But once you have a thing, you forget about not having it. You forget how not to have it, and what to do with yourself when it’s taken away.
    By midday, power had gradually been restored to most villages, but not yet to Polyna’s and the neighbouring village of Kastro, which are closer to the fallen pole and more remote than the rest of us. At Polyna’s house, the electric garage gate was holding the car hostage inside and it was hours before they managed to manually override it and escape. They picked me up in town, Polyna, Nefeli and Yiannis, and we drove to Kamares in shell-shocked silence, still reeling from our sojourn into the chaos and wilderness that was an entire morning without electricity. At Katerina’s cafe, we were given restoring hugs and steaming cups of coffee, and we all huddled around the radiator in our usual corner, and exchanged tales of horror of all the necessities we had been denied, like internet access and hot water for showering, and hair straighteners. Later, we had a big, banquet-style lunch in honour of Yiannis’ nameday, followed by more coffee and chocolate and a game of cards, and the morning’s trauma was consigned to history, the heroic tale of how we survived that morning when the power went down, to be retold with an air of stoicism, while fridges buzzed and radiators burned hot and our mobiles pinged with facebook notifications.

I think I’ll have to draw this story to a close manually, because once you start along the path of things being imperfect, there is no shortage of examples, just as there are infinite moments of perfection scattered in between, and lessons that both perfect and imperfect might teach us, in themselves or in their juxtaposition. Once you get started, the battles and the trials and the labours never end, and this particular tale spun off, from where I left it above, into three full days, Sunday to Tuesday, of total plumbing breakdown. Three days when the oversaturated earth could take not a single drop of water more, and every tentative attempt to run a tap, fuelled by denial and hope, resulted in raw sewage bubbling up through the bathroom drain. Three days when I couldn’t wash myself or my clothes or my dishes, couldn’t flush the toilet, couldn’t pour the pasta water into the sink, and developed a fear of consuming liquids for the inevitable consequence of them coming out. There were terrible moments involving a child’s pink plastic potty, and al fresco peeing in a snowstorm with an audience of over-excited cats, and dignity was just a word I’d once heard mentioned in passing. Three days of increasingly desperate phonecalls to Antonis, and being confined to the house waiting for him to turn up, and not feeling brave like Hercules at all, only filthy and tired and helpless, and wanting nothing more than the things I took for granted to be granted once again. But in between, reassuringly, moments when I glimpsed the funny side, when I declared myself a veteran of island living, having proven my worth, and deserving at least of a medal, if not a small statue somewhere, in a village square; when I turned this trial into a tale and made people laugh, people living in other contexts, within the safety of postcodes and apartment blocks, where they could flush their toilets with wild abandon and not a trace of fear. Moments when I remembered how much there could be to be afraid of, and that a fear of flushing toilets actually features quite low on the list, and that the balance of have and have not is blatantly tipped in my favour, even on days when I have to pee outside; and Powercut Parties, and coffee and cake and kindness and community and cats, and that wonderful ability of humans to forget and carry on and turn their trials into epic tales of how, once again, they survived.
    And when Antonis finally turned up, like a Sifnos Superhero, armed with the unlikely magic of pumping shit out of a septic tank, everything was instantly right with the world, all bright and sparkly and rainbow tinted, and I skipped around, trying to be helpful, as he did unspeakable things with a pump, a hosepipe and my mop, and I used the word “perfect” far too many times – but how can it not be perfect when a man with a pump can literally take all your troubles away? We sat down after, in the kitchen, and I gave him coffee and a bouquet of fresh rocket to take home, and I made him laugh with the story of OTE Lady and the Leaning Tower of Nowhere (an anecdote already, though the tower still leans over the gaping hole of my septic tank), and then we talked about my book and how many copies I’d have to sell in order to winter-proof my house. We didn’t speak of the spinny gadget; that was a battle for another day.
    When he left, refusing to discuss payment, I ran to the bathroom and peed to my heart’s content, and then I flushed and watched as the water poured into the bowl and disappeared down the drain with a happy gurgle, and I remembered to relish this moment, the only time in my life when flushing gave me such joy, because the next time I did it, I would take it entirely for granted. Which is exactly how it should be, in this perfect world of All Mod Cons, and if we went around being grateful for electricity and plumbing and upright telephone poles all the time, we wouldn’t get much else done. But there is room for appreciating them, sometimes, granted though they are, like when I finally had a shower that evening, and I appreciated the hell out of it. Except I was so busy being grateful for hot water and the coldness of the tiles beneath my feet that I forgot about the ninety second rule, and my gratitude session was brought to an abrupt and freezing end. And as I shivered and rubbed myself dry under the judgemental gaze of two cats (who were obviously tasked with monitoring my bathroom activities), I thought about my week of trials, those seven days of tests I wasn’t sure I’d passed, or what passing them meant, or what even counted as passing; and how, apart from giving me a few stories to tell, the events of those seven days had changed absolutely nothing at all, and I was exactly where I had been a week ago, showering and flushing toilets and turning lights on and off, with the fridge buzzing and the radiators burning and facebook informing me that someone’s baby had worn a hat. And it occurred to me, in a moment that’s becoming history even as I write about it, that perhaps the lesson is that, for all of the tests that we pass or we fail, there has never been anything to prove.


This piece was published in my book For Now: Notes on living a deliberate life, which is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle, and free to read on Kindle Unlimited.

The church bells are ringing

Christmas Eve, Sifnos, December 2014

From 100 days of solitude, Day 101 (24 December 2014)

It is the day before Christmas. And quite a few creatures are stirring, actually, though mostly outside of the house. Slow, black beetles and skittery spiders and bees buzzing around the rosemary bush and a bright green lizard disappearing between the stones in the wall. Boy Cat rolling around contentedly is his favourite deck chair, and the Black Cat That Coughs leaping through the grass, chasing a pale yellow butterfly that she will never catch. Flies zooming in through the open windows, and out again, back to the light. There is a lot of light.

Christmas Eve in Sifnos and the town is all astir, despite the warnings and the scenes of mass exodus at the port. This is not a town of ghosts. Everyone who’s still here is here, it seems, picking up last minute supplies for dinner, and their pensions, and presents from the two or three shops that are open, with stars and snowflakes drawn in glitter across their windows. A lady in the supermarket is looking for fresh mushrooms, which cannot be had; the butcher’s is busy, the meat cleaver falling loudly, crunching bones. Cars crawl down the road, blocking it frequently as they stop to exchange words with other cars, or motorbikes, or people on foot. Everyone is going somewhere, but slowly, their mellowness in contrast to the jagged, manic edges of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the decorations.

There is no Christmas Village in the square, but the village knows it’s Christmas, and tinsel twinkles everywhere as it catches the sun, sending strange reflections across the whitewashed walls. A nativity scene, lifesize, has appeared in the yard of an unoccupied building, and classical music drifts out the café up the road. Golden baubles hang in windows and over doors, dangle from pergolas and awnings, and dance in the breeze. The village knows it’s Christmas, despite the brightness that causes everyone to raise their hands up and shade their eyes, and the warmth that has them all loosening their scarves and wiping their brows. On every step and every doorway there is someone lounging in the sun, with sleeves rolled up to expose their arms to the heat. I take off layer after layer and end up sitting on a high wall in my vest, with a bundle of clothes rolled up beside me, looking over the edge of the land towards Paros, where our bigger island neighbours are getting ready for Christmas, like we are, but with bigger roads and bigger shops. I feel like waving, but I don’t. I’m getting enough curious looks as it is, sitting here in a pink vest and leopard-print leggings, and staring at the sea.

My festive attire.

On the way back a transition, through the outskirts of town where houses and shops give way to fields and orchards, past the gas station, quiet, with long flags hanging limp from long poles, and those funny little bundles that are curled up cats, on ledges and rooftops, following me with their eyes, and several dogs, chained and free, yelping excitedly when I get too close, and then onto the ring road, private, sloping upwards just for me. I walk in the middle, along the white dividing line, trusting in the absence of cars and half-blinded by the sun, until I reach the top and the mouth of the grassy path carved by the stream that will bring me home. There I stop, and listen, and look: Christmas Eve in Sifnos. Mountaintops and sky. Bells, intermittent, as the animals shuffle from one patch of grass to the next. Little birds twittering in the bushes, an eagle flying silently overhead. A flock of doves, mostly white, cooing as they alight, in perfect synchronicity, on a telephone wire. A cock crowing insistently on a distant farm over the hill. In the valley below, the echo of a dull, rhythmic tapping, manmade. Fields of the greenest green dotted with yellow and purple flowers. A secret garden of citrus trees that I’ve never noticed before, walled in amidst the olive groves. A single tree on a hilltop outlined against the milky blue horizon. A stone dove house on the edge of a cliff, semi-derelict, triangle openings and flapping wings. And everywhere around mountaintops and sky. So much sky, for such a small piece of land.

Christmas Eve, and now the church bells are ringing, summoning the faithful inside to sing the psalms of Christmas in yellow flickering candlelight, as the day grows dark outside. Boy Cat is still in his deck chair; he stirs as I pass him, and gives me a look that is almost trust. I turn the lights on, all of them; the house seems darker, somehow, at this time, just before sunset, than it does in the blackness of night. I will do some yoga now, and cook dinner, and wait for the church bells to ring again. I will not heed their call, but I will listen. They make a lovely sound.

Christmas Eve, undecorated. Of all the good decisions I’ve made or stumbled into, this is one of the best. Christmas Eve in Sifnos, with nothing much to distinguish it from any other day, and this is the one I’ll remember. Of all the Christmas Eves I’ve spent in decorated houses, houses much brighter than this, with presents and carols and tables laden with food, wearing the spiky garland of stress that we wrap around each other for the holidays, like fairy lights tangled up in the branches of the tree – this is the one. The only time I heard the church bells ringing; the only time that sound has reached my faithless ears, free from the noise of every other Christmas Eve I’ve known. I wouldn’t know, but for the silence. This is the one that means something to me.

It is the night before Christmas. And whatever it means to you, wherever you are, whether you’re where you want to be or somewhere else, make it a happy one. The church bells are ringing. You might not hear them through the noise, but they make a lovely sound. You wouldn’t know. But listen.


This is Day 101 from 100 days of solitude, one of four “bonus” days exclusive to the Kindle edition. 100 days of solitude is currently on a Kindle Monthly Deal and only 99p throughout December.

The nativity scene in Apollonia, Sifnos, this year.

This cannot be the end

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This cannot be the end
because people
are not just bodies,
not just limbs,
not just bones and tissue and skin,
not a collection of cells,
not just a sequence of genes.

Because the heart
is not just a drum
that beats out the tune of a life.

Because a life
is not just the body
that contains it
this time around.

And the soul
barely even notices these things
as it passes through,
as it crosses our paths,
brief lifetimes,
with a nod.

But we notice.
Those of us still contained
within these bodies,
still defined
by our genes
and our words
and our deeds,
still tethered to our paths
by hearts that beat.
We notice when you pass.

But regardless, regardless –
and no matter what box they put you in –
this cannot be the end.

Because I still have words
to describe you.

Because we are all of us magicians
and we can conjure people up
in our hearts.

Because you defined me, in part,
with your part in my life.

Because a life
is what you make of it
and I will make yours last,
with my words
and my deeds
and my heart,
with a nod
towards wherever you are,
until our paths cross again.


I wrote this a year ago today, one year and one day after my grandma died. She was born on the fourth of July and she chose to make her exit on the fourth of December; my half birthday. My grandma liked the number four.

Fuck it, and faith: Making a living doing what you love

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The other day I sat down at my computer with the intention of writing a short, practical post on making a living doing what you love, but it degenerated (is that the right word?) into an essay about poetry, and dignity, and my dad. This is attempt number two, and I will try to stick to the point and resist the lure of tangents.
    But, actually, the point, in part, is tangents: it’s how many different directions you can go in, how many different possibilities you can see without losing sight of your path. And how that path, too, can change, and how that’s allowed, how everything is allowed as long as you’re operating within the space of who you are.
    I’m not talking about the “comfort zone”; comfort zones are tight, limiting things, hence all the talk of stepping out of them. Who you are is infinite, and it’s up to you to shape it and define its boundaries: how far you’re prepared to go, how much you’re prepared to do, how deep into this space you allow other people to penetrate – so that you’re ultimately living your life in a way that makes sense to you. Knowing your own shape and your own boundaries is not limiting: it’s freedom.

I believe we’re all here for a thing (you might call it a purpose, but I’m a bit allergic to those terms), and we owe it to ourselves and this world we’re part of to do that thing as well and as fully as we can. Essentially, collectively, I think we’re here to be good and kind people, to give generously the best of ourselves that we can give and to receive, gratefully and graciously, what we are given. But to be able to do that we need to be happy, individually, each of us within ourselves; we need to be living within the boundaries of who we are. We need to be doing our thing. Because we’ve all seen it, how frustration breeds bitterness breeds resentment breeds hatred, and before you know it you’re attacking other people for perceived successes that should, by rights, have been yours, for imagined slights upon your worth as compared to theirs, competing in a game that you never signed up for and that you don’t understand. That’s not a life; that’s not making a living. That’s making a big fucking mess of the infinite opportunities we’ve been given, simply by virtue of being alive.
    Making a living: have you thought about that phrase? Not making ends meet, not struggling through, not getting by; not working your arse off and living for the weekend, not counting down days until the next holiday, the next reprieve. Not working towards, always towards an ever-shifting goalpost, not working to keep up with the stuff, all this stuff we’re supposed to need. Not working at all. “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a single day in your life” they say, and my boyfriend likes to announce to people that he’s a player, not a worker (often resulting in strange looks, and a few glances of sympathy in my direction). But he has the right idea, and work has become synonymous to burden, to obligation, to struggle. Perhaps we could reclaim the word, but in the meantime, how about playing? How about doing what we love? How about making a living that way?

It’s easy for you to say, people tell me, because it looks easy from the outside, now that I’m doing it. There’s an edge of resentment, sometimes, the beginning of that horrible spiral, but most of the time it’s fear of the uncertain, that dark, terrible void of how the FUCK?, mixed in with the hope that I – player not worker for the past couple of years – might have some sort of answer. And I do, and I don’t. And it’s easy, and it’s hard. But it’s possible, because I’m doing it, and that means it can be done. It’s not that simple, they tell me, and it isn’t, of course, but also it is. I, too, had a job and stuff to keep up with and comforts to earn and bills to pay; I, too, had to work for a living, but I yearned for a life. A life of doing my thing. And I had the fear and the how the fuck and I could sense the resentment building up and making me less of a kind and good and happy person than I could be, and in the end the choice was simple, even if its execution is a constant balancing act between easy and hard. In the end, the answer was I don’t know how, but fuck it. Fuck it, and faith.
    Those are the ingredients for playing this game; that’s what you need to bring along. Fuck it, and faith, and – to back those up in times of doubt – the principle of “I don’t need this that much”. That’s the best answer I can give to how, if you’re asking.
    – Fuck it: I gave up the job and the stuff because there was something I wanted more, and I couldn’t have it within that setup of limited comfort. And fuck it, I’ll make it work. Somehow. Each day, I’ll find a way to make it work. Not working, but playing. Going off on tangents and seeing all the possibilities: what can I make? What can I sell? What can I give in exchange for something I need? What skills do I have, what ideas, what abilities? How can I turn them into another day of doing what I love?
    – Faith: that it will all work out. Because it does. The universe wants us to do our thing, and it will back us up, it will help us along once we start moving in that direction. Once you step outside that comfort zone and into the true space of who you are, once you start living the life you yearn for, even if you can’t see the exact shape of it yet, everything will conspire to shape that life around you. And if that sounds too woo-woo bullshit for you, believe me: I can be the Queen of Cynicism, but I haven’t had a “proper” job for over two years, and I’m doing my thing, and I’ve survived. And whenever the gaping void starts screaming how the fuck something comes along and fills it. Every time. It hasn’t swallowed me up yet, because of faith, and fuck it.
    – And “I don’t need this that much”: apply this principle whenever you start to question yourself, because you will, often. Apply it when other people question you, because that will happen, too. Doing your thing is a constant balancing act between easy and hard, between comfort and fear, and it takes time and strength to break away from familiar patterns, to resist the lure of security, of working for a living, at any price. You will be tested, you’ll be offered a thousand ways back to the place that you left behind. Remind yourself why you did that. With every offer, with every opportunity that doesn’t feel like a blessing, ask yourself – do you need it that much? Be open to everything, but respect your boundaries; only let the good things in. Whenever you’re given something that doesn’t fit the shape of the life you want to live, whenever you feel that sting in your stomach, say thank you, but I don’t need this that much. Try it: it feels good.

Happiness breeds happiness, and we’re allowed to go off on tangents to find it. Go find it; do the thing that you’re here for. Make it a living. Make it your life. Collectively, we’ll all be better and kinder people, as a result.


This didn’t turn out to be much of a short, practical post. I’ll have to keep trying.


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Go back to where you came from

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(From Common People)

I thought, by now, I understood something about the New Country. I had gathered things, small trinkets of familiarity that I’d picked up, as instructed, along the way; I collected them, like other people collect butterflies or shells, pressed flowers and unusual stamps. But the similarity ended there: there are only so many butterflies in the world; so many countries, so many stamps; there are only so many spaces in a house that you can cram a hobby into. But I don’t know how you can quantify understanding; how a collection such as mine could ever be complete. How many things, how many days, how many moments of clarity. How many touches does it take before you know the feel of someone’s skin? How many times do you have to look at them before you can reconstruct their face in memory? What I longed for was a little indifference: a time when I could shrug my shoulders at all this, dismiss it with a flick of the wrist. ‘Oh, London,’ I’d say. ‘Yeah, sure.’ With affection, yes, but not with awe.
    The list grew as I ticked items off it. Vinegar on chips; lager shandy; small change; steak and kidney pies; fry-ups. Tick. Pubs; punters; post office queues; the BBC. Tick. I could ride the tube to most places without getting lost. I could buy a ticket without help. I could do my shopping in Tesco; I had a Clubcard. New friendships: tick. Handshakes, instead of kisses on the cheek: tick. Sex in a different language: yes, and tick. Mince pies, dog and bone, butcher’s hook, bubble and squeak. Glasgow Rangers: strangers. Cheers mate! Tick.
    And football: the Premiership, and the FA Cup. Divisions one, two and three. The Sunday League doesn’t count. Friendlies and internationals. London derbies. The Gunners and the Hammers and the Spurs. And the season was over now. I understood that. Tick. I had seen chairs flying and tables knocked over and glasses smashed. I had seen men explode, go all twisted like hurricanes. I had seen blood and bruises, and I understood that football had a hold over these people. A 1-0 changed them, a 0-0 draw made them sigh and shake theirs heads. Losing made them angry, and victory put fire inside them, and it singed those around. And on match days, they drank a lot of spirits, and that inflamed them even further. And then I’d seen thousands march in honour of their team, and sing and laugh and hold children high over their heads, and I’d taken that to be the closing of a circle. Tick. I shrugged my shoulders at it. And then, suddenly, the World Cup was upon us. And everything started all over again.

On my way to work one day, I received some education. I noticed the man as soon as I got on the tube: he was sitting alone at the end of the carriage, and he seemed very agitated.
    ‘Bastards!’ he said to his feet. ‘Fucking bastards, all of them.’
    I smiled a little to myself, the way you do when you come across crazy people and judge them to be harmless; not with malice, but for something to do. I looked around, expecting to catch someone’s eye and share the smile, but nobody looked up. Their eyes were glued to their books and newspapers or fixed on the floor. Their bodies were rigid, in forced imitation of aloofness. It was very odd.
    The man continued his one-sided argument. ‘Yes mate,’ he affirmed. ‘Bastards.’
    About a minute into our journey, the train came to a halt. The speakers crackled and the driver said something about King’s Cross; from the sighs of the other passengers, I discerned it to be bad news. I looked around for someone to ask, when the agitated man stood up.
    ‘Cunts,’ he announced. He staggered towards the centre of the carriage, then stopped abruptly. ‘Immigrants,’ he added, and nodded his head manically. ‘Yes mate, I’m telling you mate. Fucking immigrants. Cunts.’ Collective intake of breath followed this, and the passengers stiffened even more: a monologue of “bastards” was normal, but “cunts” was something else entirely. Newspapers rustled.
    The man waved his arms in the air, for emphasis, but entirely out of synch with his speech. ‘Send ‘em all back, is what I say.’ He nodded again, then had a change of heart. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘Line ‘em up and shoot ‘em. One by one, mate, like dogs. And good fucking riddance.’ He attempted a wave, lost his balance, and nearly toppled over. Somebody coughed.
    The man took another couple of steps and leaned forward a little. ‘Innit, mate?’ he said; he seemed to be addressing a middle-aged man who was trying to hide behind the Evening Standard. ‘We understand each other, you an’ me. Yeah. We’re British, mate. British.’ And having established that, he straightened up and moved on. He was wearing a red football shirt, I noticed, but it didn’t look like Arsenal. I squinted, trying to make out the writing on the badge, as the man stopped again, a couple of metres away from me. I looked down at my hands, but not fast enough.
    ‘Cunt,’ he said. Ominous switch to singular. ‘Fucking immigrant cunt. You fuck off, yeah, you fuck right off back to wherever you came from.’ He took another step forward. ‘Oi! I said fuck off. Do you understand? You speak English?’
    He was looking straight at me; I felt it even before I lifted my eyes to see. His finger was pointed in my direction, unwavering. I looked around, and then up at my accuser.
    ‘Excuse me?’ I said politely. ‘Are you talking to me?’
    This seemed to infuriate him. ‘You fucking cunt,’ he said. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? Fucking immigrant bitch! Can’t even speak fucking English.’ With that, he lurched forward; his face came so close to mine that I could smell the alcohol in his breath. I leaned back in my seat, and then I made out the name on his badge: England. He was wearing an England shirt.
    ‘Cunt! Fucking bitch! Go back to where you came from, yeah? You don’t belong here, nobody wants you here. Fucking immigrant.’ My face was covered in spittle. I felt sick. The people next to me shifted uncomfortably; one girl got up and took another seat, at the far end of the carriage. Nobody was going to defend me.
    ‘I’m sorry that you’re upset,’ I heard myself say. ‘I had no intention of upsetting you.’
    ‘You – fucking – what? How fucking dare you talk back at me? I am the voice of Britain. Yes mate. And Britain is telling you to fuck off.’ He pushed his face even closer to mine, and his voice lowered to a growl. ‘Do you understand? Fuck off.’
    He straightened up, called me an immigrant bitch once more, and spat; phlegm landed on my shoes and slowly trickled to the floor. I didn’t move.
    Over the speakers, the driver’s voice apologised for the delay and informed us that we were now ready to go. The train jolted, and set off again, and the man walked away and stood by the door. He resumed his mumbling.
    I got off at Highbury and Islington. As the train doors shut, the voice of Britain bestowed his last piece of wisdom on me.
    ‘And learn to speak fucking English. Cunt.’
    I stood at the platform, shaking. People pushed past me in all directions. Someone touched me on the shoulder: a woman.
    ‘Are you alright?’
    I shook my head.
    ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She gave my shoulder a squeeze, and turned to leave. I stopped her.
    ‘Why?’ I said.
    ‘I don’t know love. I honestly don’t know.’ She paused. ‘Maybe it’s the World Cup; it seems to bring out the worst in people. You know, nationalism.’ She had noticed the shirt too. ‘Don’t take it personally.’
    ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean that. I mean why did nobody help me?’
    ‘Oh.’ She looked very uncomfortable. ‘I suppose… I suppose it’s just London. You don’t get involved. It’s just how it is.’
    ‘But. That’s not right.’
    ‘No. Of course.’ She seemed to think about it. ‘It isn’t.’ She put her hand on my shoulder again, then pulled it away. ‘I’ve gotta go, love. I’m late for picking up the kids. Are you going to be alright?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘I’m sorry.’
    I nodded. She gave me a sad smile, and walked away towards the exit.
    I stood where she left me for a little longer. Then, mechanically, I walked up the stairs and out of the station and into the pub, and down to the office. I sat down in Toni’s swivel chair and lit a cigarette. Upstairs, there were songs and cheers. England was playing.
    I sobbed. This was not the kind of indifference I had in mind. This, no: I couldn’t shrug it off.


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This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Common People. Set in late 90s London, in a reality ever so slightly removed from our own, Common People explores issues of immigration, integration and adaptation, racism and xenophonia, the preconceptions and stereotypes that hold us back – whether we’re aware of it or not – and the ever-present quest for identity and belonging, wherever we choose to make our home. It is available to buy on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.