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  • Michelle Cook

"Elsewhere, an impassioned speaker stood on a box..." [Self portrait, Mass Observation Archive]

I’ve carved a space in this kitchen and am trying to make it my own. The air feels lighter here, and my thoughts stream with fewer interruptions. I don’t know why this seat is of a higher caliber than the others. Perhaps it is the double cushion, in which I can nestle my foot to shield it from the cold. I never wear enough clothes. I am always cold. This seat of mine looks out onto the kitchen, and to the door. I like that I can see my exit route and know that I am sitting here because I have chosen to remain in this mode of study, or of communion. The gift gives way to writing… sometimes. This seat of mine is just a wooden box at the end of the table and is different to all the other conventional chairs. Maybe this appeals to me too. I take comfort in its otherness. It is out of the ordinary, just as I am. Crafted and remarkable, occasionally; more often, plainly singular or solitary. It is sunlit in the mornings and a mere wall away from our sprawling garden. It is peaceful. It is not free from interruptions.


As I sit in the nook that I have found to replace many other favourite seats across the city, my train of thought is dislocated by the sounds of a housemate cooking. Roughly 27, hair awry, beard an equal, preparing, predictably, a pancake breakfast. I’ve grown to really like this man who makes me laugh, and I appreciate the order that his routines lend to my own, even as they contradict them. In the hours that follow, as in those that have passed, others will move through the kitchen changing the atmosphere around my box and the tone of my writing. The chaos of the crisis is captured in this ever-mutating flow. In quarantine, my houseshare has become strangely symbiotic in its disorder, and ever more touching because – alone and together – we are learning to embrace it.

I am 29. I don’t know why it feels important to start any introduction to myself with the number of years that I have been alive, or what it means to be 29, but many characters in books have set the scene in this way, and these are the Archives' instructions. I am 29, I am a woman, I live on Newick Road in London – OS Grid Reference TQ 34910 85989, for those who know. I am a (?)coordinator at the RSA and sometimes a student at SOAS. I am a person sitting on a box that's filled with straw for slow cooking stews, my feet are cold, my nose smells syrup, my ears are distracted by a cacophony of footsteps, and I am scared of turning 30 in quarantine.


Let’s be clear – I am not scared of getting old. If I don’t know what 29 means then I don’t know what change in identity a three will bring either, but it is a marker in a world with few others. My birthday is in October. More importantly, my birthday is one summertime away. Just as we live without a timeline to guide us to the end of this crisis, I cower at the knowledge that the long-term impact of this experience on my self is unpredictable. I worry about what will come from moving life inside. I fear collective sadness. I can imagine a future where this crisis will roll into another, and where the systems we have established to regulate our bodies and our movement will be re-activated time and time again. Daily, I wonder what I am complicit in, and then I tell myself that this new real is lived day-by-day and that any changes are incremental. I hope that this means that they are slow enough to negotiate, nurture and curtail.


Sometimes I fantasize about other places where I like to sit. The bench in a café down the road, that is tacked to the wall and shared with four other tables. I like table number 2, if you’re counting down from the peanut butter. My office chair at the RSA – a hard-win; there the tabs which evidence my meandering mind were far too exposed. The garden table at the Elderfield where I read on Sundays, listening to jazz. Covid-19 has consumed most of them. Above eye-line my trees are safe, but I must first flaunt the 1-hr rule to cycle to them.


On my box in Newick Road, I am testing my capacity to read or write all day. Not today… someone has boiled the kettle.

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© Michelle Cook 2019