Deuce

“Billygean, you remember Chris, don’t you?” MadFather says to me. He picks a can of coke up off the kitchen counter and hands it to me. I’m home for a Christmas party. I’ve already crept up to visit my childhood bedroom; the dust which covers my old books and the single bed I used to text boys in.

“Hi,” I say. Chris is a few years younger than me, but time has raced on and he has become six-feet-something, with sandy hair and tanned arms.

“Tell him about your book,” MadFather says, disappearing into the throng of people.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I say, wishing so much that I hadn’t told everybody absolutely everything so early on. “I just got an agent… Trying to get a publisher, next.”

“Wow,” Chris says.

“And what about you – still tennis?” I say.

“No – those who can’t… coach,” he says.

I wait, and he speaks again. Somebody squeezes past us, jostling me, and begins spooning trifle out onto a paper plate which bends worryingly.

“I believe I got to a world rank of one thousand,” he says.

“You were one thousandth in the world?”

“Yep – and it was far from enough.” He tells me the prize for winning a grand slam has almost doubled, yet a match he won that got him ranked at one thousand landed him with a cheque for £420.

“But… how many people can say they were the thousandth best person in the world at anything?” I say.

“True. But I’m a perfectionist,” he says.

“Ah. Perfectionism is not the way to happiness.”

“No,” he says. He raises his beer to me, and I wonder if he wasn’t allowed to drink it, before, staying in hotels all over the world, waiting alone for matches to commence. “To failure,” he says, clinking his glass against my can.

I laugh. “I can toast to that,” I say.

“It’s almost better not to try, I found,” he says. “People are embarrassed by failure. I am worse than somebody who hasn’t bothered.”

“You’re not,” I say quietly. “I bet you’re totally mentally sound, too. They always say tennis is a mental game.”

“Yes,” he says, looking into the middle distance. “You play a bad shot, but you move on. To the next one, to the next.”

Sometimes, it’s not the journey but the destination, actually.

I lock my car and walk through the business district. My hair licks my face in the winter breeze. I have the characteristic wine hangover: shaking hands, a bad head, and I bow my head as it begins to rain.

My boss appears outside her new building. “Let’s go to Bar Opus,” she says breezily. I nod, following along, wondering what to do with it: this moment.

“Just get in, get trained, and get out,” MadFather said to me over three years ago of my training contract with a corporate law firm, accepted before my body broke. I drew my mug of tea to my lips, the day before I began my training contract, and wondered what lay in store for me. I nodded, grateful for my father’s reassurance when he, surely, didn’t know if I’d complete it: nobody did.

I started two and a half days a week, when my body still held the memories of whatever had happened between glandular fever and I two years previously; when odd bouts of fatigue would still blow in sometimes like vicious sandstorms and floor me while I waited, eyes closed, for them to go. When I would still freak out if asked to walk anywhere at all and would make up insane reasons to get taxis rather than say it was because I was disabled. Because I was, I can face that now.

It is not possible to characterise those past three years, from two and a half days a week to four, from catching every bug going to dictating late at night in the office, wiping my nose with a tissue periodically. I worked 16 hour days, sometimes, turned up to every training in Nottingham, read around areas of law enthusiastically, made supervisors coffee, took my appraisals too personally. And, yes, then, illness, last year, the after-effects of which I still feel sometimes. But returning, which some people called ‘inspiring’, but really, all I did was go back to earning a living after having been sick. And onwards, since then, wearing a too-short skirt to court one memorable occasion, inching it down my thighs as I stood up to make my client’s submissions, running with a suitcase full of files across Birmingham countless times. And, lately, working, working, pushing things to deadlines, and going home and writing, writing: my two jobs, two loves. I did it full tilt, my training contract, and here I am, three years on, typing this as a solicitor: fully fledged. It’s a place I was so sure I wouldn’t get to that I deliberately, carefully, looked twice before crossing the road on my way into the office on my last day as a trainee, so convinced was I that something would come along to foil my plans, as something had since pretty much the day I accepted the position.

We walk into Bar Opus together and sit on bar stools and watch the chef. He tosses things being pan fried and moodily chops a carrot. His eyes are slightly different colours; one blueish, one more green.

And so here I am, the morning after the night before, and it wasn’t just a qualification do that got me hanging, but a leaving do, as well. I left my job, the previous day, and I probably said too many Prosecco-fuelled truths late in the night (I believe I said of one colleague, “he has two states: speaking, and waiting to speak,” which is, sadly, a trait many a lawyer has).

“We are finally here,” I say to my boss. She understands immediately, and raises her glass to me. Its sides are frosted with condensation.

“We made it,” she says. She clinks her wine against my full fat, hangover-curing coke, and smiles at me. For choosing the area of law was one thing, and impressing in that department was another thing, but what nobody could have predicted was what happened next.

I thought I would either impress and be retained, or not impress and be let go. Either way, I would be qualified, and would hopefully have my health in tact, though that’s not to say that being retained after my training didn’t keep me awake at night. But I did something I never really thought I would, had never done before or thought of doing.

My boss quit, and moved firms in October, and I followed her, there being a three-month period after she left and before I could.

And so next week, and rushing towards me, I start as a fully-fledged solicitor in an even bigger corporate firm. But there is no getting through it with my health in tact. It is not to be endured. It’s the next bit; the rest of my life.

“I can’t believe I’m finally here,” I say to my boss.

And it’s true. I haven’t really thought beyond today – beyond yesterday, in fact. Beyond qualifying, my leaving do, and my Christmas break. But the next bit is the most exciting bit.

And I have a killer wrap dress to wear for my first day.

All the world’s a stage

My doctor has always used the term remission, though he prefers ‘flare’ to ‘relapse’.

I have been here once before, in an August years ago. I waited for that day for months. I went to London on my own to celebrate, and I bought a ring in a shop selling vintage jewellery in Portobello. I chose a silver ring with a peridot stone and then I learnt that the peridot was the birth stone for August and it all seemed very fitting. I wore the ring every day, and every time I looked at it I remembered not how it felt to have glandular fever but how it felt to overcome a real and tangible obstacle, not to mention all the other things I’d achieved – working my first twelve-hour day since I was too sick to sit for even a tenth of that, walking for pleasure without pain, having problems with my glands that amounted to nothing.

And now I’m here again, a year in remission, with what is likely a different condition, though no one really knows. It almost passed me by, if I am honest, and I think it’s both healthier and unhealthier to ignore it. It means less to me because I no longer really identify as a sufferer or even a person who’s recovered, but I am also hesitant to celebrate because I can’t help but wonder if I will be here again. Or rather, that I won’t stay in remission forever.

It should be easy to move on or even be thankful. I kept my job. I am due to qualify in six weeks, and as I saw the red cups come in to Starbucks this morning Christmas no longer feels months away. I really do not think I would have a literary agent had I not got ill last summer. My first novel would still be languishing, and I wouldn’t have had all of the nice responses that drove me to write the second novel. I certainly would not be mid-way through a third. And that is a deal I would definitely consider taking – six months of illness to achieve a lifetime ambition? Probably, yes please.

And yet I can’t and won’t look at it in that way. I do not really like discussing what happened last summer, and I don’t really like to think that I am merely in remission now, as if there is a monster just off stage left, waiting to make its entrance. It must be that it is too raw; that I am, really, right back at the beginning again where colds still sometimes flatten me for more time than I would like considering my bloody Bradford Factor, and the memories of last summer and all its associated ulcers and nosebleeds and pain still loom large in my mind (so much so, actually, that only the other night I went to bed and cried, so fearful was I of the strange and varied menagerie of symptoms that occasionally rear their heads but that I am able to work through – remission it ain’t, sometimes).

I’m not wearing the ring again, but not really due to any of the above. I’ve become allergic to it, actually (since last summer, if irony were ever more fitting), and I feel too differently to wear it. I am not recovered. I am not a sufferer. Some good things happened as a result of my second illness, but there were losses, too. Mainly my peace of mind.

I might buy a new ring, when I qualify, or if I sell a book. I might not need a ring. I might just be me, with bare hands.

Good luck book

“This doesn’t exactly look like an event is happening,” MindReader said. We parked the car in the deserted car park and got out, the slam of the doors sounding intrusive in the night.

“…No,” I said. “It definitely said the common.”

“It’s big,” MindReader said. “Maybe it’s the other side of it.”

A firework went off at the other side of the common, so we started walking. We walked for ten minutes, the grass turning from the hard-packed earth of a school playing field to the wild, spongy, springy grass of a deserted common. We crossed over a ridge of slightly raised ground, me balancing with one hand on a tree trunk as I slipped on a clod of earth.

“Are you sure?” MindReader said to me five minutes later.

“This is a very Billygean evening,” I said to him; a long-term joke between us said whenever we end up at random open-mic nights or at an African heritage centre or at the launch of a shop selling total crap (all of which have happened). I pulled my phone out of my pocket and double-checked the address.

I read it, then stopped dead. MindReader kept walking, disappearing into the gloom, and I startled him with my laugh. “It’s not here!” I said. “It’s not here.”

He turned around with barely an eye-roll and we walked back to the car. “It’s this common,” I said, indicating on my map. “We can still make it.”

We drove a mile up the road and stopped. “This looks more like it,” MindReader said mildly. There were police everywhere, and men selling glowing necklaces, and candyfloss vans.

We parked by the side of the road and walked quickly around the edge of the common. “Are you ready?” a voice came over the loudspeaker. “Ten, nine, eight.”

“Perfect timing,” I said. MindReader, who likes to be early and not rush, said nothing.

We arrived as Ellie Goulding’s Anything could happen was playing, and, as I looked into the sky so big and dark it made my eyeballs ache, and watched the explosions of light and colour, I thought of my novel, as I always do, like a lover I am pining for.

I turned in my final edits last week. It is soon to go out to publishers, out into the world. I know it’s ready, but I feel nervous for it. Not because of what it means to me, anymore, but because of what the book itself deserves. It is a kind of madness, and I don’t expect non-writers to understand.

I watched some silent fireworks swirl above us, their white explosions understated, then watched a rocket launch and end with a bang and a heart shape. “Good luck book,” I thought to myself as I watched the sky.

***

We went for brunch in town. “The Boston Tea Party is good,” MindReader sad that morning to me as he brought me a cup of coffee in bed and lounged next to me while Benny washed himself furiously at the bottom of the bed. “I went there when I was on a course. You’ll like it.”

I did like it. “It’s too cool,” I said. I showed MindReader a photo I took on my phone of the bathroom. “I don’t know if it’s a very cool cafe or a prison.”

“Hmm.”

We sat by a window. I ordered a full English and a latte. They arrived quickly, steamy and fragrant. “Is that the Magistrates’ Court?” I said, staring at the building out of the window.

“Yeah.”

My book is partially set in Birmingham Magistrates’ Court. It looked different to when I went to look at it in the name of research. I had misremembered. Nothing needs changing, but I couldn’t stop looking. I spooned some scrambled eggs into my mouth and kept looking. There were the steps my heroine, Sara, climbs. There was the dingy cafe next door where she takes her client.

Good luck, book.

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The blank page

Being a writer got me a sun tan.

The break I took from writing after I finished my novel in Mexico. The meeting with my agent in the sun. This past weekend editing my manuscript in the garden during the heatwave. Law has always made me pasty, but being a writer got me a tan.

Being a writer has taken on a different form these past few weeks. The high of polishing a manuscript segued into the fun that was querying (I really did find it fun, but then, I have always enjoyed obsessively checking my email…), then leapfrogged into exciting emails and phone calls and meetings. And it’s just got better since then, really. My Twitter’s gone mental. I’ve been talked about on a podcast. Influential writers’ blogs have written about me, and I’ve done an interview (coming soon). I sat outside late on Saturday night amongst the fireflies and watched a friend’s cigarette, the tip a glowing orb in the night, and thought happy thoughts about my writing career.

The thing is, though, that’s not being a writer. And it’s very easy to get over involved in all that. The lack of terrifying hours staring at the blank page, the dopamine hits positive tweets and emails bring. It’s addictive. But it’s not writing.

And so here I am, about to start the first draft of my next novel. My emails are closed. My Twitter notifications are turned off. The Word document is blank, unblinking. My tan is fading, but this is what it’s all about. Just words on a page.

I have some big news

There are many unusual things about where I’m sitting right now. That my car is, just down the road, racking up charges at a rate only central London could justify. That nobody, really, knows exactly where I am: my parents, and MindReader, have some idea, of course, but I am basically entirely alone in a corner of London. That the sun is shining bright in July, without a British-raincloud in sight.

But the main thing, of course, is that I am waiting for a literary agent who would like to represent me.

I have not been pinching myself or thinking I am dreaming. It’s funny how things happen incrementally, something I’m sure I have written about before. There were several hurdles between me and my literary agent, and I’ve only just jumped the last one. First I had to get over the rejection of my first novel and write the second book that some agents were interested in receiving. I didn’t procrastinate, and I did finish four solid drafts between November and May. And then the next hurdle – I read it back to myself, in Mexico, a couple of days after I sent my queries, even though I’d put it away and read it before: it was different this time, because it was ready. And suddenly I was two hurdles down out of four: I had written it, and I had enjoyed it as a reader with some distance. And I’ve been reading for almost 30 years, so I trust reader-me’s judgment.

And then the full requests came in, and then The Email. The Email was not like the emails I got last autumn, the hemming and hawing and ‘send me your next books’ and ‘I love the writing but I’m not sure the concept is big enough’. It was not from the agent I had most contact with back then. But it was unambiguously positive. It was the first important email of my life that I didn’t open immediately. It was THAT important. I saw the unread message, the black, emboldened text and I left it. Then I opened it when I should have been working, and I couldn’t stop reading.

And now here I am a few days later, on a sunny Monday in London.

My agent joins me five minutes later, and there follows possibly one of the best afternoons of my life. We talk – over cake and tea and sunshine – for three hours about my plans as a writer and how my (hypothetical!) foreign and tv rights would work, where the idea for my book came from. About my next book, my blog, who I would compare myself to. And we discuss the characters – my characters, who I made up entirely on a November night in my bedroom, have been the subject of meetings and conversations I didn’t know were happening as my manuscript was considered by agents and readers – whether Sara and Robbie are believable, likeable, real. Every now and again I exchange a glance with myself in the sunny window of the London cafe, unable to believe my bloody luck.

I am now represented by Clare Wallace of Darley Anderson agency. And I couldn’t be happier.

Times is ours to burn

“Nice to see you again,” my immunologist says to me. He’s wearing trendy oversized glasses and a patterned tank top. He looks like an inadvertent hipster.

“Thanks for seeing me,” I say. I emailed him on a Monday night in the office when I could no longer ignore the wrist pain/mouth ulcers/vertigo/fatigue that reared its head again after a cold in June, and he said, “come on Wednesday.” Gone are the days of the NHS referral, for me, which is convenient but not exactly a positive thing.

His waiting room was still too warm, this time with the humid July winds that drifted through the open windows rather than with the synethic burnt-toast smell of the convection heaters that heated up the November gusts that came in with the patients.

Everyone here is skinny and a bit immuney-looking, and most are here to have their CD4 counts checked. Having now had two AIDS tests in my life, the people at his Wednesday HIV/AIDS clinic no longer freak me out, and I count myself lucky as I get a glass of water and sip it that I’m not one of them; last summer I would almost have wanted to have AIDS to have an answer and a treatment plan, but I’m glad I didn’t make any bargains.

“I can see one of your glands,” he says to me now, gesturing to my neck. I nod.

“I went to Mexico,” I say. “It was… hard. It started then, I think.”

“How so?”

“Jet lag, food poisoning, allergic reaction to insect bites, then a cold,” I say.

He removes his hand from his chin and gestures as if to say c’est la vie. “And then since the cold…?”

“Well – I’m alright,” I say. “If I stay like this I will be okay.” I know it’s true even though I’ve cried in the office twice when the pain killers have worn off. I am okay. “It’s just… last time, after that cold, I felt like this for a while and then…” I let my voice trail off, not really wanting to discuss last May and June.

“Ah, you’ve had a fright,” he says.

I blink. Is that all? This strange certainty that it’s happening all over again – and the accompanied racing thoughts of getting the sack, 99 working-days from qualification, of being a failure – could be incorrect?

“It is happening again, though,” I say, gesturing to my blood work on the screen – my dodgy C-Reactive Protein result. “One day it’s gone and then it’s back again, like a cold that switches on and off.”

“I know.” He can’t help a small smile. “It’s extremely immunologically interesting. But by that logic it’s already happening, isn’t it? And this time you’re functional.”

I shrug, not wanting to commit to such positivity.

“Give it a few weeks – let it settle down. If it doesn’t or you have to stop working we will try colchicine and steroids. But we’ll keep them up our sleeves for now.”

“Thanks.”

“Remember how we talked about getting your life on an even keel?” he says. “Is it?”

I understand the subtext immediately: stop being such a stresshead and viruses might not affect you this way. It’s a hard fact for me to grasp when I can see my egg-sized glands in my armpits, but one I concede anyway. “I tell my HIV patients the same,” he says. “Stress is bad for you.”

“It is better,” I say slowly, before realising that it is. My circumstances may still be the same – an inbox full of literary agents, a call history full of qualification interviews – but I am, well, a bit different really. Confident enough to reject a job that wasn’t right for me, for example. Not as bothered what agents think of the novel I am proud to say I think is very very good. Not floundering on my own in the office but holding my own, doing my own thing. Spending my lunch hours with my friends, with myself, exploring bits of Birmingham, spending too much in Pret. Y’know, happy stuff.

I buy too many lattes on the way to work. I listen to more new music than I have in years, banging rap and rock and folk out on my walk to work in the sun. I have interests again, other than my own health. Private interests. The Delines’ new album. Festival tickets booked. A brewing idea of another novel. Job plans afoot. I’m giddy about being at work in July when last July I was wilting at home. We went out for steak tonight and chatted casually about when I qualify, where we’ll live, if we’ll bother having kids (no; too expensive and tedious) in the beer garden as the summer breezes moved our hair about. Last Friday night I listened to soul music on my iPhone and did my filing at my desk at work, happy as anything. Life has, without me even realising it, got back on the even keel I thought it never would. All the thoughts I had last summer about never qualifying and not being well enough to work were incorrect; a waste of time.

“You know, I think it has.”

“You look fatter, which is good,” he says.

“Oh, thanks,” I say.