Accidents happen

Accidents happen when things or people collide. If accidents didn’t happen, some of us wouldn’t be here (on this planet), and almost all of us wouldn’t be here (in this situation, relationship or place). Though I liked the idea of entering the world as a little bombshell, completely unexpected, I actually wasn’t an accident. When my parents got married and bought a cat, their parents complained that this four-legged creature was no replacement grandchild, so they dutifully supplied them with me. My grandmothers began knitting as soon as the pregnancy was announced, so an entire army of immaculate tiny clothes preceded me.

I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the dirtiest Air bnb flat in New York. It reminds me of my childhood
I stumbled upon this intriguing magnet in the filthiest Air bnb flat in New York. I was this sort of girl, up in the clouds like a bird, but often stumbling into the dirt!

But despite this cushioned beginning, my young parents just weren’t ready for me, and I grew up a sensitive, accident-prone child, susceptible to viruses, collisions with sharp objects and overwhelming impressions. My feeling that I was always on the precipice of disaster, made me retreat into a world of my own making. It wasn’t all bad, though, the surprising people and situations I encountered daily, helped me become creative, empathetic and always ready to laugh.  Interestingly, a friend who was almost aborted, because he was initially deemed superfluous, grew up so much more stable and resilient. I’m in awe of his expert handling of risk – he works hard, has antennae for good opportunities, and a knack for minimising misfortune.  Both optimistic and pragmatic, this child who almost didn’t make it into the world, sees it as a place brimming with possibility.

Life’s randomness can be unfair, but it is also beautifully invigorating. At their best, accidents can save us from a sleepwalking through a lifestyle that no longer serves us. When I asked my friends about accidents that had transformed their lives, they overwhelmingly spoke about encounters with new people. Polly* had been working part-time in a cafe to fund her career as a musician, when a customer told her that she would get a better wage in another nearby cafe. Following this stranger’s advice, Polly changed jobs, and soon realised that she and the owner,  Luke were attracted to one another, despite her engagement to another man, Adam. This inconvenient attraction was the catalyst for making her realise not only, the gaping holes in her relationship with Adam, but that she no longer needed to remain in a city that she hated, to pursue a now out-of-date dream of becoming a musician. Fully awake to her revelation, Polly broke off her engagement with Adam, gave up her teenage vocation, and moved back to the countryside, where she resumed her old job in an antique shop, and now talks about opening up her own vintage tea-house. Some months later, Polly wonders whether without these two encounters- first with the stranger who suggested she change jobs, and then with Luke- she might have married the wrong man and remained in the wrong city. While she’s still unsure of the future, Polly has more confidence in the present, and maintains that you grow by being open and trying things out.

Cinderella couldn't tell whether this surprise odd shoe was benign...
Cinderella couldn’t tell whether this surprise odd slipper was benign… But she thought, she’d try it on anyway

Another friend, Pedro once saw a beautiful girl on his commuter train, but was too shy to approach her. Taking the train everyday, he expected she would be there at some point, and kept rehearsing what he would say in case she showed up. Some months later, when the girl finally made an appearance in his carriage, he mustered up the courage to talk to her. He later learned that the girl almost never took that train, and had only done so on that occasion because she had taken a day off work.  Had this been a Hollywood rom-com, Pedro’s chance meeting with the girl would have culminated in a relationship that fulfilled his initial infatuation. In real life however, the girl wasn’t interested in him romantically, but introduced him to a friend, who introduced him to a friend, whose friend, Roberta, (the fourth in the chain), would become his girlfriend for eleven years. Roberta, a highly motivated graphic designer, brought a much-needed sense of stability into his life, which in turn, gave him the determination he previously lacked. Pedro had worked several jobs, but failed to make any headway in any because he felt adrift.  When Roberta began to take him seriously, Pedro began to take himself, and  his interest in literature and languages seriously. He became a a translator, got a Masters in literature, and then eventually moved from Brazil to the United States to start a PhD. Although they are no longer together, Pedro describes his relationship with Roberta as the defining feature of his adult life, and marvels that he would never have met her, had he not taken a chance with a stranger on a train.

My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or it might have been of the little white dog.
My one and only train photo. It might have been taken by accident, or I might have liked the little white dog.

Commuter trains, with their sliding doors, subterranean trajectories and hordes of passengers are picture-perfect locations for prophetic encounters (Just think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or the films Sliding Doors and Brief Encounter).  Hearing Pedro’s story reminded me of my own frenzied train   meeting a few months ago. Suffering from flu, balancing four deadlines and realising that I had no time to apply for what I thought was a unique job, I was sitting on the tube feeling helpless, and the tears just streamed down. Two people approached me- first an older lady, who told me that sickness and death were the only true disasters, and that I was too young to suffer so, and second, a man with brilliant green eyes, a Northern Irish accent, and an odd smell, who tried to comfort me, and then just before my stop, get my number, because I seemed like an interesting person.  Part of me wanted to, because he seemed kind and sort of attractive, but in my pitiful state, I also worried that he was an opportunist with a damsel-in-distress fetish. I was also bothered by the smell. So, I thanked him sincerely for his kindness, and got off the train. When I got home, I wondered for a while if I’d done the right thing-  but let it go, because with accidental train meetings, only certain Pedros in this world get a second chance! However, my next chance meeting was strangely wonderful, but that’s another story…

An accident waiting to happen...
Twilight, cherry blossom and a bicycle. An accident waiting to happen…

* Names and places in this article have been changed for privacy reasons, but the essence of the stories are true. Thanks to my anonymous sources!




Secrets are back: here’s why

marilyn 2
Marilyn Monroe by George Barris. The breeziest way to wear cashmere.

Max Mara’s 2015 Autumn collection, imagined what Marilyn Monroe might have worn to her secret life as a literature student at UCLA Night School. Night School was a place where she could hang up her sex bomb stilettos and indulge her intense curiosity. The visual inspiration for this freer Monroe was George Barris’s playful photo of her on the beach in a clinging cashmere blanket. On the catwalk, models  in the guise of Monroe, with wind and water textured curls, rose from a blue ocean background, and clasped luxurious camel coats to their waists, merely hinting at the slinky flesh-textured clothes beneath.   One of the most intriguing outfits  layered a quilted teal strapless cocktail dress over a translucent gauge knit, and was accessorised with black-framed glasses. This was Monroe in transition from spectacle to student, and the diamond patterned quilting implied incubation and mystery.

The collection moved me because it celebrates the private, meandering passions that drift off the main course of one’s life, but ultimately fertilise it. As I’m writing in a springtime cold snap, I see the coats as cocooning, they give the catwalk Monroes the space and warmth to nurture a secret life, to adapt, without feeling exposed and naked.  As they rise from the sea, like Venus, they do not so much reveal their bodies as their occult creativity- I can’t help but think they are on the verge of pupating into something new.

A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015
A pregnant gesture. Max Mara, Autumn 2015

I’ve wanted a secret life ever since I could read and write, which is funny, because if anything, writing is communication. But the people in the books I read always had secrets, and they would reveal them slowly and artfully. Like them, I wanted to have a layer beyond what was immediately obvious. Secret-sharing for me and my school friends became an elaborate ritual, which incorporated a hushed tone of voice, the highest room in the house, or the bottom of the garden, and a promise to swear on your mother’s life that you wouldn’t tell, with all ten fingers spread before you, to show that you weren’t crossing them. I remember the heady rush of adrenaline that came from revealing a secret, or being amongst the chosen few to hear it.  There was also devastation when a third party gatecrashed your secret, and shame when you’d revealed someone else’s, and had been found out.

How high the moon. Where to spill the beans
How high the moon. Where to spill the beans.

Oddly enough, as we grew and had more to conceal, some people gave up on secrets. The taboo and the banal were splashed about on the bus ride home, and the unsuspecting friend of a friend who had tagged along, might learn everything without any major trauma. Those of us with overprotective parents or artistic pretensions still cultivated secret lives – I remember the mini skirts rolled up into my friend’s rucksack, or the times I would disappear off on some adventure without telling anyone where I was going.

Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015
Quilted incubator dress, officially Max Mara, ready to wear, Autumn 2015

When Facebook first came about, I regarded it with the suspiciousness of an ugly fashion fad. Why would anyone want to seem so accessible and obvious all the time? For a few years everyone was posting everything, and the secret threatened to die, along with the thousand, thousand anecdotes that perished because they were too ubiquitous, and no one was interested. Still, some learned the art of post-tease, sharing elusive things that led people up the garden path about their lives, or hinted at something important.  The experts hit Monroe’s sweet spot of public mystery.

From Somerset House's 'Invitation Strictly Personal' exhibition
From Somerset House’s ‘Invitation Strictly Personal’ exhibition of vintage fashion show invitations.

Of course this virtual life is a bland foil for the sadder, more complex, infinitely richer  lives that people actually lead. But the private self continues to thrive, as a space where we can experiment with new ideas and identities before they are wholly exposed to the world. Secret hopes, dreams and fears are shared delicately, with a few choice confidants, and often face to face. I’ve even seen some of my childhood secret-sharing rituals return: clandestine lovers and crushes are nicknamed, and scrutinised in pubs that you’ll never return to; creative projects in embryo are coded after a single letter; and there’s a Wednesday afternoon that you won’t account for, but leaves you smiling.

Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton, 1920s.
Another way to code your secrets. La Gazette du bon ton under glass, 1920s.

Living immortal in a mortal world

I’m compelled to write about the strangest phases of my life, when I feel that time is continuous, and there is no urgency to act, because nothing is of any consequence beyond today. At these times, the world is full of fleeting wonders and I can find a home anywhere and no-where. Death feels unreal, a whimsical walk in Highgate cemetery. I stare at the stone tombs, unable to believe that I, or anyone else will ever join them.

I feel most timeless in November, the month after my birthday, when it seems as though I'll never have another...
I feel most timeless in November, the month after my birthday, when it seems as though I’ll never have another…

I was raised by self-conscious mortals who frequently alluded to their impending deaths. The call of the Underworld was strongest when I dyed a costume in my father’s bathtub, turning it blue, or when I disappeared on a night out, without calling home. When my grandmother actually died, eleven years ago, it took months before I could really register that she had gone. Part of me thought that she was just pretending again. Death seemed relative, not absolute. Life was made up of more deathly and less deathly things.

Grandma spent half her time saying that she would die one day, and the other half convincing me that she belonged to this immortal tribe. (the  classical Nereids)
Grandma spent half her time saying that she would die one day, and the other half convincing me that she belonged to this immortal tribe: the classical Nereids.

For me, the deathliest things were commitment, sacrifice and responsibility. When my parents described life as a series of plans and stages, I would interrupt and say that this was pointless, as  I might die at any moment. my mother would cross herself and scold me for being so blasphemous, while my father laughed and warned me that if I survived, I’d better have a plan so I wouldn’t have to live off my poor parents.

There were times I’d work towards my future as though it mattered. But sometimes, I’d drift off course, not deciding upon anything or anyone. Work-wise, immortal phases were characterised by enchanting short term projects and obsessions. There was the metaphysical poetry immersion in my last year of undergrad, the scalpel-cut dragonflies for a mad Irish visionary’s event, the Christmas pop-up shop, the summer of playing a Georgian lady at Kew. All were intense and magical, but none had a lasting impact. Now that I’m finishing a PhD and have to lavish attention on every last footnote, I long for a skittish escape…

Not seeing beyond today, immortals rarely have well stocked cupboards, and subsist on offerings. In my time I've beguiled away chocolates, berries and cherry tomatoes.
Not seeing beyond today, immortals rarely have well stocked cupboards, and subsist on ‘offerings’. In my time I’ve beguiled away chocolates, berries and cherry tomatoes.

In immortal phases, I preferred flirtation and romance to anything mundane that would stick. Once, I liked someone that I saw almost everyday for  two years. Although he was single during this whole time, I never told him how I felt, because it would be so final, somehow. A bit like death. Instead, I preferred the bizarre, yet unthreatening predicament of seeing other men and rushing back to tease the hell out of him.

Immortals are sometimes delusional enough to believe that the world revolves around them. On some level, I thought he would always be available for me. Of course, predictably, when I finally did confess my feelings, he had already begun to date someone else. I put two and two together, and calculated that a man who unfailingly  ate berries at midnight and fried fish on Wednesdays, would be with his new girlfriend forever.

The sense of lost possibility overwhelmed me: not deciding, not risking anything was not so inconsequential after all. I was discovering that the other side to immortality was sleepwalking through life. I made a resolution to take chances, not to be afraid of my dreams, the big ones.

An immortality complex can make a ghost of you.
An immortality complex can make a ghost or a goddess of you.

Now, I’m leading a double life, where I feel  mortal and immortal at the same time. Oddly enough, living as though life will end some day, makes those brief immortal spells all the more precious.




A date with no expectations

redshoe fade

One day, my flatmate* wandered in, looking flustered. ‘I really don’t know what to wear for this date,’ she said. ‘I have zero expectations’. She had her reasons for being so pessimistic: her date had been sending her mixed messages during their brief courtship, and just when she was beginning to forget him, six months later, he texted out of the blue, inviting her to an exhibition.

It was a sultry Indian summer afternoon, but she was not feeling the warmth. ‘This weather is confusing my soul!’ she complained as she scoured her wardrobe for something suitable. She finally settled on a long-sleeved Breton striped top and black jeans, and after I convinced her that she would broil in her chosen grey suede boots, replaced them with open-toed wedges. The date was abysmal. He had shown up 40 minutes late, so hung-over that they had to leave the exhibition half way through, and  made several confused suggestions that included a film, a massage, a drink in a pub far-away and then going home because he felt queasy. When she came back, understandably disappointed, she said again, ‘well at least I didn’t make an effort with my appearance!’

George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar
Comfort dressing. George Barkenton for Junior Bazaar

It then occurred to me that outfits and dates are intrinsically expectant. Clothes are for the most part success orientated: the coat that weathers all storms; the shirt that secures the promotion; the mini-skirt that pulls; the deconstructed trousers that signal alternativeness. Women’s clothes especially, are designed to enhance sex appeal, even when they are masquerading as work or sportswear; a certain neckline deepens a cleavage, while a slyly positioned stripe slims a thigh. Dressing for a date with no expectations is near impossible because you go against clothing’s fundamental optimism.

What my flatmate did, was to present the most armoured version of herself. The Breton stripes are her second skin (she wears them most days), while the black jeans and  boots she gravitated towards even on a sunny day gave her elegance, but more importantly, protection. It was as though she sensed her heart wasn’t safe with this flake, and she had better guard it tooth and nail.  After her absent expectations had come to pass, she was satisfied that her coolly demure outfit hadn’t given too much away. How galling it would have been to wear hope on her sleeve for one with a track record of disappointing her!

Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.
Beatific levels of expectation. Arnold Newman for Junior Bazaar.

Having expectations in the very early stage of a relationship has become distinctly unfashionable. While it’s wise to run from anyone who displays a calculated spouse or shag strategy in the first five minutes, the current advice that you should date without attachment or expectation, so that you avoid being hurt, is misery-making. Ironically, by censoring hope that things should go well, we repress the most magnetic part of ourselves and end up more confused and jaded than ever.

Another type of great expectation
Another type of great expectation

But what can you realistically expect in the first few dates? In a few words: mutual attraction, connection and respect. If you don’t have a spark, can’t hold an engaging conversation or are being mistreated, then you should feel deflated. Disappointment hurts, but allowing yourself to hope and lose, rather than expecting nothing at all, puts you in touch with the reality of the situation and your desires. Being self-aware will help you actualise something greater in the future.

If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green
If your expectations have been dashed, choose your shade of blue or, in this case, sea (sick) green

*Thanks to my flatmate for lending me her story. I’m a daylight robber, not a thief in the night.