2 October 2009
This doesn’t get any easier. Leaving work every Friday evening – brain fried – I head to the gym to clear my head for the weekend. Then it’s back to east London where I lock myself away, sit at my desk and put in the hours. By Saturday afternoon I’m in the zone – emerging hourly to babble at Tony, make more tea, or trot to the far side of the apartment where a wired-up computer has www.britannica.com and www.thesaurus.com permanently open.
Where I am now would have been a dream a year, even six months, ago. But I’m still not done. That’s because I’m desperately short of the one truly non-renewable resource; time. There’s too much to do and never enough hours to invest more than the barest minimum in anything, or anyone, outside the essentials – work, book, Mum, Dad.
And so, stage-by-stage, every other part of my life has been screwed up. At least two close family members have stopped talking to me. Several formerly crucial relationships have withered. Then there’s the aching sexual frustration, the ever-lengthening list of administrative tasks and the fact that absolutely nothing else about my life has a chance to move forward. How did something so spontaneous and joyful, spawn a process defined by slog, isolation and lonesomeness?
Mum told me she was ill the day I got back from South America. Since then, for two years, I’ve been frantically running a race to get stuff done before life got even more complicated. There are too many straws on this camel’s back, too many clocks ticking away, the problems just keep piling up and, whenever I tackle one, it’s always with one hand tied behind my back.
There remains only one way to get the job done – by getting on with it. I may believe I’ve created art full of narrative subtlety, gripping prose, explosive ideas and soaring themes, but there are endless devilish details in the product development. So I can either freak out because it’s difficult, or I can press on. As my friend Lab says: “Talk is cheap, let’s see the work, let’s see the talent.” By May chapters start thunking off the conveyor belt after a meticulous process of editing, reviewing, re-editing, re-reviewing and copyediting until they are tight and slick and stripped of fat.
In the world outside, days go by. When anti-capitalists take over the City for a day the Jolly Pilgrim uses the opportunity to interview seven protestors, five policemen and the dude running the BBC radar van. Conclusion: all these people seriously need to read my book. In June, Swine influenza sweeps over the Atlantic, through the papers and then through the people around me, giving us all a tickle of what a full-blown pandemic will feel like. In July, Harry Patch, the last living link to the trenches, passes away. That world just keeps turning.
And life keeps getting more complicated. In August, Mum takes a fall. It’s a bad time in life to take a fall. Visits to home and the hospital become weekly occurrences. This time I’m pushing a wheelchair. Mum’s heading towards life’s finishing line with a smile on her face – like someone who knows they’ve won. She is serene. Her son is not. So I cut myself off even more, fight through waves of blackness, grab every hour I can and accelerate towards that finishing line. Tantalisingly close now. Stay focussed.
Do your duty. Do your art. Do not lose your nerve.
Almost made it. By September we’re writing living wills together and it’s becoming even more intense. Finally I’m keeping a three-day vigil at my mother’s deathbed. I silently polish chapter nine beside her. She’d have loved it. The nurses let me sleep in the ward while a whirl of family, and a brand new niece, are close by.
Then I watch the rise and fall of her chest gradually slowing until I’m holding her hand, giving her a kiss, saying her name and telling her how much I love her as she draws her final breath. I’d never seen anyone die before.
Then we’re all living through the aftermath. A house full of close family, and a stream of friends telling us how much she meant to them too. Even more tasks to get through. Dealing with registrars, green burial people, then porters at the morgue. A week later we bury her pure-white coffin, sprinkled with flowers, along with singing, poetry and high emotion. That glue holding you all together is suddenly no more. Your world will never be the same again. Ever think life would start getting simpler? It just don’t work that way. So take a deep breath….
Thy fiery tears, and let thy loud heart keep
Like hers, a mute and uncomplaining sleep;
For she is gone, where all things wise and fair
Descend; -oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
Will yet restore her to the vital air;
Death feeds on her mute voice, and laughs at our despair.
– Percy Shelley