Having been very reluctant to join Twitter, I’m a convert. I’ve got to know some interesting people; I’d go so far as to say I’ve made friends. A life that principally revolves around writing, which is a solitary activity, and children, who are of necessity selfish creatures, can be very lonely. Twitter’s like a fifth form dormitory feast at Malory Towers; we all play up and play the game, and share any spiffing cakes and ginger beer that come our way. If Twitter saw a child fall over in the playground, it’d run over, dust off her broken leg and send her back to play on the swings. Twitter made my Luminaries jam tarts and gingerbread Jenny Peppers into celebrities.
And Twitter was made for book launches. The party photos, the early reviews, the enthusiasts. The first sighting of the book in the wild. The first signings. Anything is possible for every new publication. Pre-publication is a strange, up-and-down journey, but for the few days leading up to P-Day, the new novel is, briefly, everyone’s raison d’etre. And rightly so.
As publication date for The Ship was set for half term, we decided to have the launch party a week early so that people could come. And we did, and it was perfect. Putting up photographs and writing about the party was my plan for Friday morning. Along with seeing James safely to and through a serious and much-needed hospital appointment, and making Friday as much about him as Thursday had been about me.
And then, on the tube home from the party, my mother was taken ill. On Friday morning she saw the GP, who diagnosed a femoral hermia; by one o’clock we were in hospital, waiting for emergency surgery. She was in terrible pain, unable to keep any food or drink down, and in between bouts of vomiting and agonizing spasms, she kept telling me to go home. Eventually I had to, to pick the children up from school (four at two separate schools, with four different finishing times, plus piano lessons and after school activities). By the time I spoke to Mum again in the early evening, things had deteriorated. The hospital doctor didn’t agree with the GP’s diagnosis. She needed more tests. Don’t come, Mum kept saying. I don’t want you to come. But sometimes, there’s no choice. James was just back from eight hours of intravenous drug treatment, and I had to leave him with the children and our piano teacher (who is, fortunately, a very good friend) and get back to the hospital as fast as I legally could. I found Mum crumpled and sick, sitting alone in a crowded waiting room with a brimming sick bowl, knowing nothing more than that her sudden ghastly lump wasn’t a hernia. Lymph node involvement had been mentioned. There was no prospect of a bed, or of any privacy. The laughter and the pride and the singing of only twenty four hours before was gone. In the brief intervals between the pains, Mum said one of two things – Go home, or I hope this hasn’t taken the gloss off for you.
And here I pause momentarily. I didn’t want to be in that hospital, watching the hands of the clock move round without bringing any answers. I didn’t want to hear news I couldn’t influence. I’d taken my laptop, thinking I’d be able to work during the hours of waiting. But I couldn’t do anything. I was staring mortality in the face when only the night before, I’d been thinking I might just live forever.
I gave birth to my three younger children here at home. When my third, Adam, was born, Mum was in the kitchen looking after Oliver, just three, and Thea, nineteen months. She heard me crying out in labour, and she heard everything go quiet. She later said that the twenty minutes between the silence and the news that she had another grandson were the longest of her life. She was powerless. She could only wait, and focus on the immediate needs of the oblivious babies in front of her. And as Friday night wore into Saturday morning, all I could do was sit next to my mother and hope that she knew I was there.
In The Ship, Michael Paul wants to create a world that is all book launch and no A&E. All safe childbirth and no miscarriage. All health and no chemotherapy. And I get him. If I could have sealed The Grant Museum on Thursday night, and kept all the happiness and good will and loveliness preserved forever with the brilliant people who were sharing and creating it, I would have done.
But it’s not possible. The moments we don’t want to live through make us as human as the moments we’d like to last forever. And there’s humour in the bleakest times – when the diagnosis eventually came, I found myself punching the air and giving thanks for my mother’s strangulated femoral hernia. ‘You’d get better driving from the porters,’ the surgeons who came to take her to theatre at 1 a.m. said, ‘but we’re better anaesthetists.’
And so the lovely things have to wait. I’ll get the photographs of the launch party up soon. But it’s taken me two days to write this, in fits and snatches. Time stolen from my mother, my husband, my children. But that’s life. Real life. Not life in 140 characters.
Ginger beer, anyone?