10th December, 2022

The last few weeks have been filled with lovely writerly things. I’ve been working with a mentor for an anthology that Lincoln University is putting together. It’s fairly lengthy and is inspired by a piece of old family history. It’s been a joy to research and write. It’s with the editing team at the moment and I’ve got a reprieve until mid-January when I’ll receive their feedback. Then it’ll be all systems go to bash it into shape for publication in the spring. I’ve also returned to editing my novel which was longlisted for the Cheshire Novel Prize earlier this year. This book seems to be taking forever but I’ve been knocked off track so many times by that rollercoaster we call Life. Anyway, I am determined! And bit by bit it’s getting there.

Writing Friends

And speaking of the Cheshire Novel Prize, a few of us who were shortlisted or longlisted managed to meet up in London last week. We had such a fabulous time. I’m so proud to be amongst these talented, warm, and kind writers. We have become friends, chatting virtually in a private space created by the organiser of the prize, and there are more of us scattered far and wide, but it was lovely that seven of us could get together.

Arger Fen

I’ve had some lovely walks in recent weeks, too. I met a lovely writing friend for a tramp around Arger Fen, a Suffolk Wildlife reserve. It was a beautiful autumnal day and we perched on a damp bench to eat our packed lunches. It felt just like we were on a school trip! I also had a flying visit to the Peak District. I actually went for a lovely friend’s book launch and took the opportunity to grab a couple of hikes. It was absolutely stunning, and I’ll definitely be back. Although, not for a little while. I’ve had hip pain for several months now and yesterday I received the diagnosis of gluteal tendinopathy which basically means I’ve got an inflamed tendon. Great! I said. Well, sort of. The doctor said. You’ll need to have physio and it’ll take around four months to mend so you’ll have to cut back on walking and the gym. Not the best news, but not the worst either. In the meantime, I’ve started a preliminary exercise routine the doctor gave me until I see the physio.

The Peak District

I’ve been a bit hit and miss with my reading lately. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout. I could relate to Lucy in so many ways. Being alone, I often look back on my life and wonder about things. Sometimes it’s easier to look back when looking forward and planning a solo future can be exhausting. I think the trick to a happy balance is to only look back on the best of times, and try not to see too far into the future. Lucy by the Sea really hit the spot.

I’ve also enjoyed A Narrow Door by Joanne Harris, which was very clever and had me guessing until the end. At the moment I’m dipping into a collection of short stories in A.L Kennedy’s We Are Attempting to Survive Our Time. Wonderful stories.

View from my bedroom window

December can be a tricky month for me (actually, I’ve come to the conclusion that most months hold some sort of gnarled root to trip me up). And so I decided to start a little project called #itsasunrisething. Each day in December my plan is to post a photo of my sunrise. I’m doing it on twitter where some lovely friends have joined in, and it really is uplifting (although it got off to a cloudy start with no sun at all!). But this morning I cheated and took a photo from my bedroom window. I’ll venture out for a slow, gently walk (bah! humbug!) with Molly a bit later. But for now, I’m in bed with my laptop and tea. And what could be nicer than that?

13th November 2022

It’s Remembrance Sunday today and last night I watched the Festival of Remembrance televised live from the Royal Albert Hall. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually watch but I dozed off earlier and when I woke, there it was.

It was incredibly moving but the strange thing is that Tim wasn’t in the Armed Forces and yet the memories of him bowled me over. They sang his favourite hymn, Jerusalem. There was a beautiful rendition of The Wind Beneath My Wings which left both the singer and me in tears. You see, I once told Tim that he was the wind beneath my wings. It wasn’t the sort of thing we did, being all mushy. But it was before he was diagnosed with the brain tumour. We were on our way to York for a weekend to see the Christmas market and I had booked a 1:1 with a literary agent. I think we sensed that we were on the cusp of something big. I think about that weekend a lot.

This morning I am eating toast in bed. Something Tim absolutely hated. I can hear him tutting and mumbling about crumbs in the bed. And, yes, he is right. There are. But sometimes it’s easier to think of him being grumpy with me than the loving things he did. Somehow that’s easier to bear.

Everyone’s gearing up for Christmas. I’ve started early because I know that I can only do it in small chunks. I have to measure out my time because I know that I will be bowled over by grief. That tidal wave is hanging perilously close. Funnily enough, two people in the last week have told me that Christmas isn’t for everyone. I don’t think they understand why I can’t get excited. Why my son and I will be spending it alone and I will put something in the slow-cooker and we will take Molly and go out walking for the day. We are not spending it on our own through choice. I used to love Christmas: the planning, the cooking, everyone around the table. But that now, has gone. I suppose they are right; Christmas isn’t for everyone. Christmas isn’t for me. But it hurts.

In the meantime, I shall keep on walking, keep on writing. The former helps me to see that I’m moving forward, not getting caught in the slipstream and going under. And the writing? Well, that helps me to try and make sense of it all. I don’t think I’m an easy person to love. Tim was the best of me and without him, it’s hard to fly.

‘Did you ever know that you’re my hero
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings.’

(Jeff Silbar and Larry Henly)

The end of the road

Well, we’ve gone our separate ways. Jesamine has returned to lovely Campervan James. Our threesome has returned to a twosome. And while I feel I should be sad, to be honest, I feel relief.

I loved being on the road with Jesamine and Molly, but I had to call the AA a few times and I’m not at all mechanically minded so whenever I wanted something checking, I had to book her into the garage. Sadly, I don’t have deep pockets or the inclination to learn about engines.

Added to that, I just haven’t been out and about as much as I’d expected. Naively, I’d thought that being away from home would help to forget the loneliness that’s drilled into my bones. But I’ve found that there’s no escape from it – you just cart it around with you. And in a funny way, I felt more lonely sitting all alone in the campervan surrounded by families and groups of friends having fun. Well, not lonely as such. I missed Tim.

It all became a bit much. Getting Jesamine was supposed to be fun, easy, a new life. But I found I didn’t want to let go of my old life. Tim and I had planned to travel together. That meant all the planning, driving, navigating, setting up would be shared – I was exhausted doing it all alone and it only underlined that he’s not here.

But I haven’t shelved my dreams of exploring the UK coastline. I’ve still got my tent and there is the luxury of B&Bs. I’m still going to do it, but in my own way, in my own time.

Wish me luck.

Poor old girl’s lost her spark

Poor old Jesamine’s lost her spark. You’d think it would gradually fade away, perhaps with a gentle putter, like a candle’s wick burning to the end. Or she’d be slow to start, as if she needed to warm up her aching bones. It all sounds quite romantic. With just a little rest and the right tweaking she might find it again.

Into the Common

Ha! When it comes to Jesamine you can forget romantic notions. What actually happened is that after I spent nearly £60 to quench her thirst, twenty miles later she decided to judder and jerk. She switched off and struggled to start (thankfully this was at 7.30am this morning and the roads were quiet). I kept talking nicely to her, cajoling her on. But just as were almost home she let out a humongous BANG! which must’ve woken up the whole village. Thankfully I managed to coast into a layby.

Lovely AA man arrived just 45 minutes later and explained to me that yes, Jesamine had lost her spark. He taught me about coils and spark plugs, the distributor and its cap. It was all very educational. But the end result was he couldn’t fix it. But he could tow me to the next village where there’s a car mechanic.

‘There are a couple of problems,’ he said.

I smiled and nodded my head. I was feeling chilled. I had the campervan vibe.

‘We’re facing in the wrong direction and can’t turn around here as the road’s too narrow. We’ll have to go on to the next village where there’s a roundabout.’

Where mountain bikers do their thing

I smiled and nodded. No problem.

‘Have you been attached to a pole before?’ he asked.

Well! I wasn’t sure how to take that. My smile a dropped a bit. He beckoned me over and whipped his pole out from the van (and if any of you are smirking at this point then I am lost for words!).

‘You’ll have no power steering,’ he said.

No problem. Jesamine hasn’t got it anyway (yes, I have fabulously toned upper arms!).

‘Handbrake off. Only look at my van. Follow my steer. Indicate when I do and break gently when I do. Just so the people behind can see what we’re doing.’

I gulped. His van looked awfully close.

‘Will it be scary?’ I asked.

He pursed his lips. ‘Well you look quite brave. Just follow the van and don’t try to look around it.’

This is how close we were!

I gulped again.

As kind as the lovely AA man was, I can honestly say that this was one of the scariest driving experiences of my life. I had no control and we were driving along country lanes – passing cyclists and parked cars. He was only a couple of feet in front of me and there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t see anything, or know why he was indicating and driving on the wrong side of the road has he overtook. I know these roads, I know the bends and the potholes. I drive in my own way, brake in my own way but now I had to put all my trust in the van in front. Logically I knew that I wouldn’t crash into him, but instinct is a powerful thing to overcome.

Well, that’s all there is to it really. We arrived at the garage. I’ll go back tomorrow to explain and hope they fix her soon.

‘Because of Covid,’ I’m really sorry but I can’t give you a lift home,’ lovely AA man said.

Leaving the farm

I didn’t mind. It’s only a couple of miles and I really needed to try and stop my heart thumping and get some feeling back in my legs (they were doing a great impersonation of Elvis). The walk home through the Common was lovely. I stopped and watched some mountain bikers doing very scary stuff and I realised what I’d just done wasn’t very scary at all. A couple of them stopped to chat, which was lovely. I got lost on the Common, which is a usual problem for me as I have no sense of direction. I ended up walking through a farm and having a chat with a lady there.

Finally I arrived home. I’d left at 5.30am to take Molly for a walk and to fill Jesamine with petrol. Just a quick jaunt. Five hours later I walked back through my front door. But you know what? I’ve had the best time. I’ve met some truly lovely people. My heart rate’s returned to normal, I’ve got feeling back in my legs.

Jesamine may have lost her spark, but I’ve got my campervan vibe back.

Jesamine, Molly, and me

Foraging… for a Lloyd Loom chair

Whitstable, Kent

I’ve been decorating my family room – a room at the back of the house that opens up onto the garden. I sit here a lot to read and watch the birds. I plan my trips and listen to the radio. On some evenings I browse through CDs and LPs and if I’m brave enough, I’ll revisit the past. It’s a special room. An extension that Tim and I added many years ago. In the winter we’d sometimes spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in here reading the papers and doing the crossword with the fire blazing. Since Tim died I’ve felt his absence in this room more than in any other and so I took the huge (for me) decision to give it a makeover. To make it mine but to keep the the little flourishes of our life together: photographs, pictures, ornaments…

Lovely son moved into a flat a while ago and I gave him the two-seat sofa from the room. His need was greater than mine at the time! As part of the makeover I’m going with comfy chairs. I already have two that I love and I decided that a Lloyd Loom chair would be just the thing to complement the others. And wouldn’t you know it – I found a lovely lady selling just the thing in Canterbury. Yay! I thought. Road trip!

Jesamine went like a dream. Molly stretched out and slept most of the way. I picked up the chair with no problems and it seemed a shame to waste such a beautiful day so we carried on a little way to Whitstable. I adore Whitstable. The sea here is different to my world of estuaries, salt marshes, and the raw North Sea. Somehow, at Whitstable, the sea seems gracious.

We were lucky to find a parking space right on the sea front and Molly and I walked along towards Herne Bay, enjoying the sunshine. Families zipped around us on bikes and scooters, Molly pranced and danced, sniffing the air. I bought some chips (well, I was at the seaside) and took them back to the van. Feeling gracious and refined, I sat in my Lloyd Loom chair with Jesamine’s door open, and Molly and I looked out across the sea while I ate my chips.

We stayed all day, not caring about the rush-hour traffic on the way home. I even enjoyed the queue at the Dartford Crossing as we waited to drive through the tunnel. I was full of romance… and chips. I told lovely daughter all about this wondrous day when I spoke to her on the phone. Her view of the day wasn’t quite the same as mine.

‘Oh, God!’ she said. ‘You’re turning into The Lady in the Van!’

You know, she may be right. And to be honest, I don’t think I’d mind that very much at all.*

*If I could live in my van beside the sea and have central heating and a bathroom, and a washing machine, and not just chips all the time…..

On the road again….but just for foraging

Travel restrictions are still in place and like most people, my itchy feet are itching like crazy – the end of lockdown is so close I can almost taste it.

I’d hoped to do some traveling around the UK this summer but it’s looking unlikely as I think everywhere will be so busy. Those of you who know me, know that I like to seek out the quiet places. But, we’ll see – fingers crossed I’ll be able to explore somewhere new.

Jesamine wasn’t taken off the road for the winter, but I didn’t actually use her. So a couple of weeks ago I set about ensuring she’s road-worthy, checking tyre pressures, oil, etc. I wasn’t surprised that the battery was flat but I’ve got a magic charger thingy so I’m a dab hand at firing her up! Last week Jesamine, Molly, and me hit the road to the supermarket and had a little walk along the canal. I am the Queen of Multitasking!

So, today we did the same. I needed a break from editing my novel and the fresh air usually clears some of the cobwebs away. In fact, my smiling starts as soon as I unlock Jesamine. Molly hops in, full of anticipation and settles on the back seat. And as soon as we’re on the road and my old 70s music is playing, my heart soars.

I’m very lucky in that Tesco sits next to a canal (The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation). So I can pop into the supermarket for a quick forage, and then take Molly for a walk. Molly is fine in the van, she just lays on the seat and has a doze. A retired greyhound’s life is a very tiring one.

As luck would have it, we came across a couple of swans on the bank. I’d spent the morning editing a scene where a swan gets caught and my leading lady rescues it. The swan, of course, hisses and fights her – it doesn’t know what’s going on. And wouldn’t you know it, the two swans I came across this afternoon hissed and postured and flapped their wings at poor Molly (who actually would have liked to eat them, I’m sure) which was rather wonderful. I’d forgotten how vicious they can be and to see them so close has really helped me with the scene.

We walked along to Beeleigh Falls (not quite as dramatic as Niagara but it’s close!) and reminisced about a walk along here with Lovely Hubby. That had been at the height of summer and the place was mobbed. Today, I passed a couple of fishermen and a few dog walkers. The sun was shining and people were smiling. Moorhens and ducks glided along the water. I looked for tadpoles (far too early, I know, but I always do) and fought the urge to paddle.

Soon we’ll be able to spread our wings and travel. But I think how lucky I am to have this right on my doorstep.

A desert trek in Jordan

Tim and I had always planned to travel – as I expect most people do. It was always ‘one day’.

Then, in November 2017 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma – a bone marrow cancer. It’s not curable but is treatable which centres around trying to buy you extra time. He was lucky, he hadn’t had any symptoms; it had been picked up by a routine medical. After the initial shock, we settled into a routine of blood tests and visits to a consultant every three months. Before each appointment the tension ramped up, but we were always relieved to discover that his blood levels had remained stable. So far, so good.

Tim was 55. The consultant guessed that Tim might have ten years before needing treatment as he was otherwise fit and well. We worked out our sums and decided to save as hard as we could to pay off the mortgage so Tim could retire at 60. We would outrun this thing. We began exercising and eating more healthily – Tim needed to be fit for the gruelling treatment ahead.

Originally, we’d thought that when we retired we’d rent our house out, buy a campervan/motorhome and travel around Europe and the British Isles for a year. That had been the plan. I still have the folder where we put newspaper and magazine clippings – all for our ‘one day’. The diagnosis of multiple myeloma changed that. Tim didn’t want to be away from our children now he knew the clock was ticking. We decided we would plan family holidays and make the most of the time we had. And we really did.

It came as a shock on 4th January, 2019 when I took Tim to hospital with a suspected stroke. It was even more of a shock to learn two hours later that he had a brain tumour. At first the consultant was optimistic but after a biopsy, we were told it was the worst possible kind. A glioblastoma. So deep in his brain that it was inoperable. He may perhaps have a year.

More tests followed and his condition deteriorated rapidly. The only way I can describe it is that it was like dementia taking hold at 90 miles per hour. Chemotherapy was arranged to ease his symptoms but unfortunately he was too unwell to start the treatment. The promised year was reduced to six months.

After a couple of weeks Tim began to confuse words. He thought he was saying the right thing and he was absolutely spot on with his thoughts. But his words were muddled. After about six weeks he lost the ability to communicate. He knew exactly what was going on but he couldn’t speak, or write, or type, or read. We communicated in a strange way – more guesswork than anything else. 

Right until the end he kept his sense of humour and he faced the end with a strength that I admire so much. He passed away in the early hours of the morning on 29th March 2019, at home, with me and our children holding his hands.

One of the places we’d hoped to visit (although not in the campervan!) is Petra in Jordan. Tim loved the Middle East and was fascinated by its history and landscape. He loved camels and the heat, sand-dunes and the people. He worked in Saudi for a fair amount of time and made many friends. When he died it was comforting to receive messages from people I’d heard him speak of.

Tim gave me a seashell from a beach in Yanbu in Saudi Arabia. I often hold it and I think of him there. I have a photo of him outside Laurence of Arabia’s house. This part of his life was foreign to me but I used to love hearing his stories.

It’s because of all this: these stories, our ‘one day’, the seashell, that I’m doing a charity trek with Dream Challenges to raise money for The Brain Tumour Charity, 2-9 April, 2022. We start our trek at Wadi Araba and walk to Petra over five days – I say ‘walk’, but this is serious stuff. On two of the days we walk for eight hours; on another two days we walk for a meagre six hours!

I’ll be setting up a Just Giving page and hoping to raise oodles and oodles of money for the charity. It’s too late for Tim, but I just might be able to help someone else.

I’ll also be blogging about my journey. I’m middle-aged, fat, and unfit. I think I might have bitten off more than I can chew. But I need to do this. I need to show Tim that I can do this.

I’m doing it for Tim. For my best friend.

This blog about my journey can be found here.

Just Molly and me

Happy New Year!

How to see the new year in is a conundrum this year. Thankfully, after ten days of self-isolation due to coming into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, today I was free! Gosh, how I’ve missed my walking boots.

I resisted temptation to jump straight in. Instead, I took Molly for a walk this afternoon as I wanted to be near the water when the sun set. Living on the sunrise coast means our sunsets over the sea are purely in our imagination. And it’s been a flat sort of day – I glimpsed the sun ghostily doing its thing behind thick clouds earlier. By the time I got outside it had given up the ghost (ha! great pun there).

But there was something about being in mud, with the temperature just above freezing, and the breeze freezing my ears off that was pleasant. Yes, I’m going to use the word ‘pleasant’.

Much of today, the grand finale of the year, has been quite underwhelming. The day here in Essex has been grey. The temperature hasn’t changed much. We can’t socialise. Even the supermarket wasn’t very super. It’s felt as if all the air has been sucked out of it.

I’m very much aware that this is a good place in which to be. I am very much aware that in hospitals and in many households life is very different. For there, the day will not have been underwhelming. Today will have been about life and death.

I walked along the sea wall and watched the Canada geese and, as always, I was grateful for the moment. An underwhelming day is good. It means that I, and all those that I love, are safe. And who could ask for more than that?

Happy New Year, dear friends. I hope the new year is filled with love, peace, happiness, and good health….and laughter – we all need a bit of that.

Jesamine, Molly, and me

Heybridge Basin, Essex

Swimming in December? Just look at that smile!

Deep into edits today, I realised I’d become stuck. All had been going well and suddenly a piece of dialogue just wouldn’t work. The conversation wasn’t sounding right – the characters weren’t doing as I wanted them to do. So I grabbed Molly’s lead and my camera, and we jumped into Jesamine for a winter estuary walk.

This time last year I was still full of the excitement of returning home from Shetland. This year is very different. So many people I know are struggling and bad news seems to be everywhere. I feel as if I’m missing Tim more than I ever have (last night I wondered if it would be weird to stuff some of his clothes that I’ve kept and spray them with his aftershave because I wanted to hug him so much – bonkers, I know). There’s a Maroon 5 song called Memories, that always makes me think of Tim, and last night, when I was scrolling through social media (a huge mistake before I try to sleep), I came across the song by One Voice Children’s Choir and I realised it’s based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D, one of my all-time favourite pieces of classical music, and I played it over and over and….well….I had a rough night’s sleep.

Where’s all the mud?

So this afternoon I headed out, tired, frustrated that I couldn’t find the right words, but Pachelbel running through my mind. The car park was busy but when we got onto the sea wall, there were only a few people around. Before I knew it I was saying hello and chatting to people working on boats or walking their dogs. The tide was in which is unusual for me. I always seem to time my walks for when the tide is out and I realised how much I’ve come to love the muddy moonscape of the riverbed.

I came across a small group who were swimming, and I got chatting to one of the ladies. She said they swim almost every day. Her smile was infectious and I felt my heart settle. Molly and I only walked for an hour or so. It was cold but not bitterly so. The landscape was a steely blue – almost impossible to tell water from sky.

Sky or sea?

I came home singing along to Johnny Cash and A Thing Called Love. For a little while I found peace – and love. For a little while I let the estuary hold me and I allowed myself to let go of my fear and sadness. I started humming Pachelbel again, but this time I was smiling and thinking of the line in the pop song: memories bring back you. To remember is usually comforting but sometimes it’s painful. That’s the risk I have to take – what’s the alternative? I have to trust that everything will be okay.

So, back home and back at the keyboard. I tried having a word with my characters but they just wouldn’t cooperate. There was only one thing for it. I highlighted their boring conversation and pressed delete!


Just Molly and Me

Northey Island, Essex

It’s been a while since I’ve been on an adventure. Since I got back from Happisburgh I’ve struggled with my mental health and although I can’t say I’m tickety-boo, at least I feel hopeful again. This is all part of grief, I’ve been told. There’s no rhyme nor reason to it. You’re swimming along and think everything’s fine, and then something grabs you by the ankle and pulls you under.

Anyway, Jesamine’s poorly (an electrical problem) and it’s nearly a year since I went to Shetland, and I thought it’s about time I took some time out and spent a few hours invoking some of the spirit I found at my November home. I’m calling it: be more Shetland.

So yesterday I made some tattie bread and boiled some eggs. And today I headed for Northey Island – just seven miles down the road. I’ve been before, a long time ago, and it’s the inspiration for the book I’m writing, although I’ve given it a fictional name and taken huge liberties with its location, size and layout. The island’s owned by the National Trust and you need a permit to visit which sounds very important but it’s just a case of dropping them an email with your request. I was lucky to get in, visits are stopped from 1st November till spring because of the number of overwintering birds that use Northey Island as their home, the short days and the weather.

And speaking of weather – it was Shetlandic, shall I say? The cold, wind and rain took me right back to last November, and having boiled eggs and tattie bread for lunch was perfect. There are no facilities on the island: just a farm, a house that’s used for holiday rentals, and a bird-hide. And that’s the beauty of it. As the wind buffeted me I felt miles away from home. The only sounds were the birds calling, the wind in the trees and occasionally the tap-tapping of rigging from boats across the water.

The farmer’s field was filled with Canada geese, dunlins toddled around on the mud picking for food, I watched an egret spread its wings and take flight. The plants that make up the saltmarsh were in glorious colour, and I spotted a path through the reed grass down to the water, which surely must be a sign of water voles. The air was salty with seaweed, the clouds were low and grey, and my face was wet with rain. Trudging along with Molly by my side, I realised that my heart wasn’t racing, my hands weren’t shaking and my brain-fog had gone.

On an island, just seven miles from home, I found peace.