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Resolutions

In 2017, I shall waste no time doing things I don’t want to do. I shall spend as little time as possible with people who lack ambition, enthusiasm, or common sense, or who think that anything other than kindness and self-control makes them better than others.

I’ll focus on learning new things, mastering new skills, climbing new mountains.

I shall have less compassion for others and more for myself, so if I’m giving you my time, it’s because I know you won’t waste it.

My time is limited. Writing is selfish. We love what we do because we love ourselves. But if you don’t love yourself, what is your love for another other than a reflection of your own self-hate, conditioned by the other’s response, and by the horror of not knowing who you are?

I shall support more causes, sign mlore petitions, take more time to know people that no one wants to know.

I shall waste no time with gleaming references and impeccable manners, because I know they hide insecurity and rot and emptiness. Because I know there’s more to learn from hanging out with interesting people than with the right people; connections can fade, inner richness doesn’t.

I will say ‘No’ to more things and ‘Yes’ to more things.

I will seek new adventures, conquer new hearts, save more souls, walk more paths I haven’t walked.

I will spend more time in children’s hospitals and in places of worship. I will light more candles and say more prayers.

I’ll donate more.

I’ll publish a new book and write a new book.

I’ll be happier and bolder. I’ll follow intuition over advice. I’ll follow my heart because success seeks those with a backbone, and I’ve spent enough time with snobs to know that you can’t really camouflage between them.

No matter what you achieve, the world always knows where you come from. It’s up to you to make it your weakness or your strength.

I’ll have more ME time and seek to know myself, so that I don’t hurt others trying to find out who I really am.

I’ll give more love and receive more love.

I’ll travel to a place I haven’t been do, and do something I haven’t done – scubadive or skydive or sunbathe on a nude beach.

If 2016 taught me something, it’s that good things come when you least expect them to.

And so do bad things.

‘What do we say to the god of death?

Not today.’

(Game of Thrones)

If only it was as simple as that…

 

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Remembering Andrea

‘To Beatrice – darling, dearest, dead.’ Lemony Snicket

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Yesterday I remembered her. Maybe because 2016 is ending in such a macabre fashion. George Michael is dead, Carrie Fisher is dead, Debbie Reynolds is dead.

And, to top it all, a friend’s ex partner has died at Christmas, leaving behind three children I love, aged 5, 3 and 1.

Her name was Andrea and we were best friends, twenty years ago.

Like me, she hated being stuck in a small town, even if she lived in a large house with a snaking staircase, her own loft room and a garden with potted lemon trees.

Our lives were similar. We both went to grammar schools, had tutors for the most important subjects – Romanian, Maths, English, French, History -, smoked in secret, and shared bottles of expensive vodka stolen from our father’s drinks cabinet.

When we turned fifteen we joined the same writing group – the only writing group in town. Those afternoons, gathered around a massive oak table, in the empty dining room of an old mansion – stolen by the Communists to be institutionalised – with a terracotta stove crackling in the corner, and the raw scent of snow wafting through the open window (because everyone smoked), were some of the happiest of my life.

One of the writers there would become a succesful poet, with important awards and publishing contracts under his belt and his work translated into several languages. But back then, when I listened to him read, in his barely broken, teenage voice, I couldn’t have imagined that he wouldn’t live to be thirty, or that I’d make a speech at the festival held in his honour.

Like Andrea, B. commited suicide.

When I found out about my friend’s death, I was in Bucharest. We drifted apart when we left home, as it happens, I suppose. She was doing a degree in English, like me, but at a different university: the prestigious State University, so the Government paid for her degree, while I went to a fee-paying school, one of the universities that took students if their grades were good. Mine were just about high enough, but I didn’t fancy spending my summer studying for the inhumane entry exams that Andrea passed so easily.

The week she died Andrea phoned me to ask if she could meet me. It was a Wednesday; I was on study leave. I refused, not knowing that I’ll spend many years wondering what she had to say – if it was something more than borrowing money or having a beer together for old times’ sake.

Sometimes I allow the chilling thought to unfold in my brain, cold as ice. Maybe she wanted to tell me about her intention to commit suicide. Maybe she wanted to be saved. Maybe I was the only one who could save her.

We hardly ever met anyway, so it felt okay saying no. The last time she came to my house, she sniffed cocaine at my dining room table and had more piercings than I could count. Her hair was dyed a vivid blue.

That day, she put the phone down and that was it. The last time I heard her voice. I played that conversation in my head a thousand times – but I found nothing – no clue that she was going to do something so definite as hanging herself from the shower hook with her father’s fishing line.

I still know her phone number. I remember her family had a piano, and that she could play it, although always in secret, as if her middle class background was something to be ashamed of. She was the most anti-ellitist character you could’ve met. The most liberal girl on earth. She would’ve given anything to be born in a simpler life.

 

Andrea visited my dreams for a year. They were the most horrid dreams, but every time I closed my eyes to sleep, I wished for them. Because I missed her so much. Because I felt guilty. So guilty for all the things left unsaid.

It was spring when she died, and if I could talk to her again, I’d tell her that spring is not the season to die – not in Romania anyway. How could I know that one day I’d miss the perfume of acacia trees, so pungent at her funeral? Or that the scent of the Damask roses after the rain would always remind me of her?

If I could talk to her again, I’d tell her that life is worth living after all. I’d tell her that I miss her.

I’d tell her that I kissed her boyfriend and that I’m sorry. I’d tell her that he was with me when she phoned to say that he was distant and that she thinks he’s having an affair.

I’d tell her that he wasn’t worth it.

I’d tell her to keep writing and get a job  – any job – whilst studying. Because all the kids who did achieved more than us, quicker. Because if she had a job, maybe she wouldn’t have time to think about dying, or hang out with people who took drugs.

I’d tell her that I believe in God now – not the God who sent her to her grave without the last rites, because suicide is the gravest of all sins, seeing you can’t ever repent for it; but the God who allowed me to change so that her death isn’t in vain.

I’d tell her this: we now have smartphones, and you would love them.

You would love Lemony Snicket. And you’d love the quote that I have in mind now. I like to imagine your laugh as I type it down, the way I’d imagined it so many times over the years:

‘You will always be in my heart

In my mind

And in your grave.’

R.I.P.

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Away with the Lincoln Fairies

I’m the princess who slept a hundred years.

I spent a good part of my life in a glass coffin, at the top of an ancient tower, in a forest outgrown with murderous ivy, infested by evil spirits.

I’m the Burmese snake drowned in rice wine for the sake of the odd souvenirs, waking up from an alcohol infused sleep to a world outside my jungle, only to find that I can still bite.

Today, I open my eyes to more than lessons and cake and unncessary paperwork, gossip and playgrounds and seeing the same faces in the same places day after day after day. I learn that bad behaviour is neither my fault nor my responsibility. In fact, in the real world, the person sitting in the dock gets the sentence. Try telling a judge otherwise.

I’ve chosen to work every day this week, even if it’s almost Christmas. I knew that not a single day would be like the other…and I was hungry for adventure.

If the essence of romance is uncertainty, this is also the essence of love.

And I LOVE my job. Because it is uncertain.

Let’s start with the beginning.

At first, there was Lincoln.

DAY 1

LINCOLN

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It’s Monday morning, and I’m in the back of a cab, trying to ignore the sensation of vertigo in my stomach as the car advances slowly up a steep hill. I’m in Lincoln,  a place I didn’t know existed until last week, when I looked it up to see what the fuss was all about and because, well, I was going to work there.

The town has personality. It’s the first thing I notice. The narrow cobbled streets, intricate brickwork and ancient cathedrals remind me of my father’s native town in Transylvania, only Lincoln is immersed in the typical English fog and looks like the prefect place for a Poirot mystery.

“This is it,” the elderly cab driver announces, and as I scramble out, careful not to slide downhill on the mossy paving stones, it occurs to me that perhaps I’m a little insane. I’m two hundred miles from home, in a place I’ve never been to; I have no idea if and where I’m staying the night, or how reliable the trains back to London are (as it turns out, not so reliable). And the best thing is, I love it. It’s freedom and power and I breathe the strong damp air not without a certain exhilaration.

I try to keep a cool head as I look down at the picturesque town, the pointy rooftops sprinkled along the valley like extravagant mushrooms, but the truth is, I’m not very good with heights.

The taxi is about to commence the treacherous descend when I knock gently on the side window and ask the driver: “Excuse me, where exactly are we?”

“This is the Crown Court right there,” he tells me, pointing out the ghostly shape of a building through the dissipating fog.

No, it issn’t a building.

It’s a castle.

A proper castle. I count at least five towers emerging form the fog, giddy with curiosity as I walk down the wide path to the main entrance.Displaying IMG_3498.JPG

 

I’ve gotten used to the theatrical atmosphere at courts, but I still chuckle inwardly every time I see the cloaks and wigs, balancing mountains of files and making the offenders mute with admiration. It’s like walking into my own mind, a place of fantasy, something that existed all the time beneath the surface, unnoticed. On the wall a Victorian clock watches over everybody like the hand of God, its arms pointing accusingly to each of the Roman letters that, as crazy as it sounds, not everyone can read.

A lot of the life at court is a waiting game. Waiting for the offenders to arrive, whether they are in custody or not; waiting for the judge, for the lawyers, the list is endless.

It’s eleven a.m. and I’m sitting in an interview room with one of the barristers. I watch him nervously. He’s intimidating in his pristine shirt with a fabulous white collar, and his fingers leaf expertly through a book entitled Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice. I opened it while he went to the coffee machine to get us coffees – sugary and disgusting, on my Top Worst list, and found that it was full of complicated sentencing guidelines and that it had half my weight.

A. strokes his beard as he tells me about his marvellous life as a commercial lawyer. In his view, commercial lawyers, dealing with fine matters such as litigation, are the true gods of the Law. What they do is magic: pick one word and spin it into something it’s not. See the flaw that no other eye can see. Be a wizard, but how can you without having been born one?

Something must have happened for him to part with commercial law. He talks of it as if it is a long lost mistress.

“You either have the intellect for it, or you don’t,” he tells me. “And your intuition. That’s the first thing about being a lawyer.”

I get it. It’s hunting with your eyes closed. I observe A. with increasing curiosity. He’s different from who he was half an hour ago, even a minute ago. Shifting to different shapes, appearing where you least expect him to be. Maybe he is a wizard after all.

Earlier on, he told me how he traveled to Eastern Europe and found it mostly dark and edgy, especially Latvia. “You just can’t walk down the street without being attacked,” he told me. “And were you attacked?” I asked.

He wasn’t.

He tells me stories: how he entered a maximum security prison holding up his trousers, trying to keep the laceless shoes on his feet, with only a few sheets of paper and a pencil, all numbered and measured by the security guard.

Gesticulating abundantly, A. explains that there is a fine line between a good lawyer and a monkey. I refrain from asking in which category he includes himself, or if he isn’t insinuating that a monkey can go through bar school. The man is bonkers, but we have something in common – the ‘you either love me or hate me’ thing.

There’s no doubt about it: you really love him or you REALLY hate him,  but he is so weird that I have to like him – I’ve realised it because the wicked smile is on my lips. He is one of those characters in a novel that you can’t quite put your finger on, see through and opaque at once. I know my muse is awake because the compulsion to write becomes unbearable, and the sentences begin to gather in my mind like storm clouds.

“Still, you have to be pretty clever to study Law,” I comment. After all, I looked it up. I wanted to go to Law school myself, back when I was eighteen and read the Criminal Code back to front to find out if I could sue someone. I could, and I did – the guy went to jail for a year, and I don’t know how I haven’t thought of this before. Of course, it must be exactly where my passion for justice in general and criminal law in particular started.

The only people A. respects in the criminal justice system are the judges.

“They’re really smart,” he tells me, as he beckons me to follow him up and down snaking corridors to the cells.

In the cells A. is a different person. He is taking notes in deep blue ink, pressing the pen so hard on the paper that you can read the statement on the page underneath. I don’t have the time to think about the mysteries behind his erratic caligraphy, because we are expected in court, where A. camouflages himself in the familiar furniture arrangement like a leopard ready to spring.

I have lunch in an old fashioned pub with the other interpreters. The soup of the day is apple and parsnip. Once again, the waitress is Romanian, and she tells me point blank not to have it. No Romanian in their right mind would have apple and parsnip soup, not even in the week before Christmas when we’re all supposed to fast. So I have a beef baguette instead, savouring every bite and every moment.

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Back at court, when the day has ended, A. asks for my card. His confusion as he takes in the creepy clown picture – the same as on my book cover – pleases me.

Walking back into the fog, I can’t help thinking that Lincoln looks like an elf city, especially at Christmas; almost too pretty to be true.

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Wander on Willesden Lane

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I’ve come to dread working in London. Maybe I’ve fallen in love with the real England -‘London is not England’, right? – or maybe I’ve gotten used to the Southwest trains packed with the high earners reading 50 Shades discreetly on their kindles, or maybe I’ve allowed comfort to be my deadlock of far too long.

Today I had some time to kill between two probation interviews. Apparently, there was a cafe just round the corner, but no one warned me what exactly I was going to find behind that corner…

Well, if you think you’re going to find a Costa, Starbucks or Cafe Nero in the grim heart of Willesden, you’re dreaming. If you think you’ll find a place to warm up and expect not to emerge reeking of garlic and fried goat, you’re dreaming again. And why would you bother with a hot beverage and a croissant when…

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Wander on Willesden Lane

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I’ve come to dread working in London. Maybe I’ve fallen in love with the real England -‘London is not England’, right? – or maybe I’ve gotten used to the Southwest trains packed with the high earners reading 50 Shades discreetly on their kindle, or maybe I’ve allowed comfort to be my deadlock for far too long.

Today I had some time to kill between two probation interviews. Apparently, there was a cafe just round the corner, but no one warned me what exactly I was going to find behind that corner…

Well, if you think you’re going to find a Costa, Starbucks or Cafe Nero in the grim heart of Willesden, you’re dreaming. If you think you’ll find a place to warm up and expect not to emerge reeking of garlic and fried goat, you’re dreaming again. And why would you bother with a hot beverage and a croissant when you can have freshly baked naan, hot from the stove, at ten in the morning? You know, because kebab is just the thing you fancy with your coffee.

All I wanted was a place to sit and much on a banana and a piece of rye bread whilst reading about the principles of criminal liability, but instead I found myself staring at a modest Afghan bakery. Me and the man behind the counter observed each other in silence for a moment. I was the first to move, walking back through the monotonous December drizzle.

When I returned he had vanished in the secret room out back. Without him, the shop looked somehow ghostly, like a walking suit from where the person is missing.

I ended up in a diner, writing this at a ketchup stained table, while the solitary builders watched me between mouthfuls of crispy bacon. The girl at the bar was Romanian, though I didn’t tell her that I knew. The community is too large now to pretend we have any connection with each other. And the coffee was the worst I’ve ever tried – INSTANT- every coffee snob understands that.

I snapped a few photos and returned to the office, where the atmosphere was charged with tension, made worse by the fact that the water supply had finished.

I returned to my seat with the sickening aftertaste of sugar in my mouth. In Willesden, you’d better watch the coffee lords. They sneak sugar in your coffee before you can say ‘I like it black.’

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The Strength of Letting Go

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Me on a train to Southampton…

I’ve just put the phone down, having turned down an amazing job offer for a trial at the other of the country. Financially, it was appealing. An overnight stay, all expenses paid for, and an extra emergency fee on top. The truth is, I am booked for the rest of the week, but the agent took my no as an invitation to negotiate. I’m not very good at bargaining, and I blame my mother, who doesn’t forget to remind me that haggling is below me. Of course, she never imagined that I’d have to make my own way in the big bad London, but your upbringing stays with you forever – wherever you go. She wasn’t wrong about that.

I closed my eyes and savoured every moment of it – my newly found freedom. The exhilaration of working for myself. It must be like the ecstasy of being back to flings after a domestic ordeal. Freelancing is the one night stand of employment land. I invoice, you pay, and – Hallelujah!- we go our separate ways. You don’t tell me what to do. You don’t know who I am. You know nothing of me but what I chose to tell you, and you may only judge me by the work I do in the limited time you have with me.

Okay, so maybe I sound a little too excited but I’ve wasted ten years of my life in a job that suited me like a straight jacket. Day after day, I felt like Life had kidnapped me, put me in the back of a truck and gagged me with my own dreams. There was nothing for me but wait to be dumped in a quiet place and left to die.

Only one day I woke up and said NO.

I will never walk into a classroom again.

I will never give a warning again.

I won’t eat another cupcake or drink another cup of free coffee or fill my brain with things that bore me or allow myself to be ‘checked out’ by the eligible bachelors playing the dating game even if no one is dating them just to make themselves look interesting.

I won’t ever be startled by the sound of the bell or pull a Christmas cracker with someone I detest or hear another fucking whistle.

The thought is liberating and frustrating in equal measure. Because, what took me so long? The answer is simple.

FEAR.

‘Making a new step, entering a new world, is what people fear most.’

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Waiting to go into court…

Sometimes, I wake up screaming because I’ve dreamed that I’m back in another Friday morning meaning. Then I remember, it’s over, I can stop sweating and overeating, I’m back to my old skinny self from before the nightmare of schools, and in the morning I’m traveling to somewhere like Oxford or Lincoln or Manchester and I can stay the night if I want to, and it’s all while being paid to do a job I’d gladly do for free.

‘You know you’re on the road to success if you would do your job and not be paid for it.’ Oprah Winfrey

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My hotel bed in Hove…

For years, I was too drained to meditate. I’d fall asleep at eight o’clock, exhausted. I wrote to survive. Writing was my way of breathing underwater, staying alive when everything in my life was bent on killing me. Every day spent in the job I had trained for made me feel more and more like a failure.

For those of you who don’t know, the time in the teacher’s life that is not spent marking and planning is spent threatening. Threatening with warnings, with the head of year, the head of department, the head teacher. Did you not know that certain schools have more chiefs than Indians? Oh, you’d be surprised just how far the human ego can go for the sake of a status.

I’m not underestimating the importance of education. I’m not forgetting those who are made for the tough, shifting world of schools. People with a true passion for teaching and those who are simply politically talented. But let me tell you something, if you are outspoken, and suffer from overactive imagination, don’t waste yourself in the twelve hour shifts that’ll make you bleed the milk you drank from your mother. You’ll get home to fall asleep while your wife gives you a blow job. And if you’re lucky you might just be able to pay the mortgage (or get one).

Apologies for being blunt, but you have no idea how good it feels, getting out at last – and I want to shout from the rooftops!

You’re too good for this. But if you stay, thank you. Thank you from me and in the name of all the teacher-parents who’ve given up. We appreciate every minute of your time and we won’t ever – EVER – say you have it easy just because of the holidays. We know you should work half the time, for double the money, for a quarter of the stress.

So I guess, the way to stop something you hate is just STOP it. Close your eyes and listen to the voice of intuition – something I’m learning to do, and it’s almost like writing the first draft of a novel. No inhibitions, no barriers, just pure inspiration.

It’s only now I realise that I’ve been listening to the voice of fear all along.

‘The thing you fear has no power. It’s your fear of it that makes it powerful.’

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The Place Where Children Go to Die

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The day I said goodbye to my young son to return full time to a job that barely covered the childcare costs, I saw the true face of the world. It was a day that broke my heart and changed me forever.

My son was 14 months old. I was still breastfeeding, much to everyone’s disapproval. People commented that we were ‘too close’ and that nursery was good for him. I tried to remember that as the automatic doors closed behind me and I felt a rush of panic as I absorbed every detail of his little face: blue eyes, light brown curls, the turned up nose.

I can’t remember what he was wearing; I remember getting out of there in a daze, feeling as if I had been stabbed. I took a few deep breaths, wondering if there was anything more I could have done. I’d delayed it as much as I could. I’d received support from my family. But, despite all my efforts, the dreaded day had come, and I just wasn’t strong enough to walk back through that door and take him home.

The day I said goodbye, I learned that a mother’s pain can go as deep as her love. It taught me that I am strong. I learned that the hardest battles in life you fight alone. I felt no emotion but the all-enveloping grief, and hate at the world that had given me something so beautiful only to take it away.

And yet that too has passed, and today I found that I knew nothing of grief. Today was one of those days that taught me more about myself than I wanted to know.

It taught me that I am ungrateful.

Greedy.

Lucky.

It showed me exactly why my selfish desires mean nothing to the world.

In the heart of London, just around the corner from extravagant shops bustling with ecstatic shoppers hungrily searching for the latest deal, sipping their Cappuccinos or admiring the early Christmas trees in the window displays, is a place where children go to die.

I walked briskly through the crisp November afternoon, with nothing but a vague idea about what to expect behind the friendly looking double doors.

Inside, everything is bright. The letters in the Welcome sign are all different colours – Zach would love that, I find myself thinking, and smiling at the thought. The ceiling is painted blue and white, imitating the sky and clouds on a sunny day.

Nevertheless, there’s something sinister about the place. The too bright drawings. The sterile silence of the corridors. The lifts with no mirrors.

The horror lies in the little things: a pair of tiny pink Crocs at the foot of a bed where a girl’s lying still – too still, perhaps, seeing that she’s about my son’s age; the screams of a baby being held down for chemo; the fathers who no longer care that it is not manly to cry. I hear the loud prayers from the chapel. When I walk in, I see the Christmas tree with all the paper prayers of those who, for reasons unknown, have been chosen to accompany little angels on their last journey.

If your children are alive and healthy, you don’t know grief. Go and hug them. Love them. Allow them to run around the house and jump on the bed; let them be silly. Remember that, somewhere, children sit still because they are about to say goodbye.

Behind the animal printed doors, life goes on as normal. There are shops and cafeterias for people whose life is the hospital; parents who don’t think it’s weird to talk about their child’s death, or make arrangements for their funeral.

The small girl with the bruised face. The boy who looked half-dead in his buggy. The toddler who cried ‘No more’ as I sat, frozen, in the waiting area, trying (unsuccessfully) to stop the tears from flowing.

You taught me a lesson. You taught me that life is unfair. You taught me that the world is a much darker place than anyone can imagine. You taught me that I had no right to pick the long straw.

I go to the chapel and tie my own prayer to the unusual Christmas tree. I pray for all of you. Most of you will not be saved, but I’m writing this to make sure you are remembered.

Strolling back into the sunshine, for a while at least, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the sky.

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Road Trip: Romania Part 2

gabrielahardingcouk

When I turn off the light the house is enveloped by silence, broken only by the purr of the crickets outside in the grass. I’d never heard crickets in England – and they’ve become an emblem of my past. I’m suddenly moved by my parents’ effort to make their home livable. Every little detail shows planning and care: the arrangement of the sofas, the easy access to the house’s only balcony, the ladybird shaped night lights. My bathroom is bigger than most single rooms I’ve seen in London, in those dark years of renting before finally buying my flat.

And then it strikes me: this house was designed with us in mind, a house for the parents and the children, in the spirit of our Eastern culture. My mother often boasted of how much intimacy we’d have, if one of us decided to stay. They hoped it would be my…

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