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.

I won’t slip up

November 2013

Being in the office still feels strange to me. I have forgotten how to scan a document in and where the teaspoons are kept. I have forgotten how the quiet, cool meeting rooms smell in the evenings: the after-smell of hoovering combined with Pledge furniture polish.

“How’s all things novel?” a colleague says to me, her hands resting along the top of my cubicle walls.

I started my second novel last week, aiming to complete it by the spring.

I look around me to check nobody’s listening (double careers are likely frowned on in the law). “Going well,” I say. I hesitate, scared of my own ability to procrastinate, to ‘get Christmas out of the way’, to ‘settle in at work’ and suddenly for spring to arrive and for there to be no novel to send off to the waiting agents. “If I’m not doing it, though, will you make me?”

“Yes,” she says, nodding.

The office is quiet and rain patters at the window nearest my desk, the drops looking silvery in the city lights. I stretch at my desk, going back to my law work, knowing more work awaits me at home every night.

***
March 2014

I finish the first draft, and then I finish the second draft on an early spring evening. It feels like an anticlimax as I type “THE END” and get up to let the cat out, goosebumps appearing on my arms as the door lets in a slice of cold spring air. I still wouldn’t let anyone read it. Chunks of text have been deleted and other scenes still don’t read well, have no depth. “How will I ever know it’s finished?” I say to MindReader.

“You’ll just know,” he says. Later, feeding the cat as he shouts impatiently, I can’t even imagine it; having the courage to use my one opportunity and send the novel off, and the novel being finished and saying everything I want it to say.

***
May 2014

I had always earmarked the last week in May to send my novel off, but to my surprise I stuck to the date exactly. The third draft transformed it, and then I threw in a surprise fourth draft when I started reading it idly and spotted lots that I wanted to change.

I sent it to all the agents who asked for my second book, then, 12 hours later, boarded a flight to Mexico.In my harem pants, sunglasses over my eyes, the Mexican rainforest just visible beyond Cancun airport’s windows, my novel felt a million years away.

It was a completely different set of circumstances to querying my first novel. I am working, for one, and do not need the validation of a Plan B. There is none of the angst. I do not feel particularly neurotic about it. And, as I spotted an old draft of it on my Kindle in Mexico I read it and was reminded how far I have come. I don’t particularly think what if it’s not good enough? anymore. Instead, I think I wrote a bloody good book. Whatever happens beyond this, I know that.

***
June 2014

It happens in Mexico, at Chichen Itza. Not at the top of a pyramid in a symbolic moment, but actually in the toilets. My phone connects to the wifi as it’s resting on the marble sink and springs to life with emails. I look at it after tipping the bathroom lady a dollar for helping me dry my hands, scrolling idly through the Facebook notifications and Mango Sale emails. And there it is. A full manuscript request. The first full manuscript request, three days after I sent the opening three chapters off. I don’t feel validated or imagine spending my advance as I did last summer. I just feel: ‘hey, that’s quite a good sign’.

I show MindReader, and we eat a celebratory taco.

Later, a few days later, I get a second one.

***

I start to feel breathless in Mexico. Jet lag, I thought. Or anxiety. Then I recognised the crushing tiredness for what it was as my sinuses filled up and my throat got sore. I struggled on, working too much maybe, and had to take a day off on the Monday just gone.

My doctor raised his eyebrows at me. “Ah,” he said, listening to my breathing. “You are congested.”

“Well, there’s no reason to say what happened last summer will happen again,” I say, not adding an is there?, having had enough therapy to know I’m the only one who can reassure myself.

“You could’ve done with… just a few more months of health, really, couldn’t you?” he said, and I try not to make acidic comments about how if people could climb inside me and experience how viruses make me feel, and for how long, they may wash their hands in the office more.

“Yes,” I say instead.

And so I find myself here at my computer with throbbing sinuses and checking my email slightly too often for feedback on my novel and it could almost be last summer. But I went to Mexico and I’m back at work four days a week and disaster almost never strikes twice so this time – the immune system, and the novel – it will be different.

A funny story

“Billygean,” MindReader says, closing our front door behind him. He removes his cycle helmet and his hair sticks out in tufts. I look at the clock. “I’ve lost something.”

“What?” I say.

“You look nice,” he says with a smirk. I’m wearing a giraffe onesie, having a movie night in a new bid to relax more. “My bag’s open and I think my jeans fell out on my way home,” he says.

“Where?”

“I thought I felt something just up there,” he says, pointing vaguely out of the kitchen window. “My wallet’s in them.” He wheels his bike through the living room and I follow.

I shrug. “I’ll go. You shower and stuff.”

I close the front door behind me and get in our car. A few drivers raise their eyebrows at me as I reverse quickly out onto the street.

Half a mile up the road, I see his jeans immediately, on the other side of the road. Without thinking too much I indicate right, because the jeans are on my right (this is the kind of driver I am), then realise when a car on the other side of the road flashes me that I will actually have to turn right now, instead of pulling over on the left.

I swing the car into someone’s driveway and get out.

A car pulls up behind mine and stops, its engine idling. The driver winds down the window, but doesn’t say anything, merely stares at me, aghast. I look down at my giraffe onesie and then back at him. I realise with an embarrassed lurch that I am parked on this man’s driveway, and I am dressed as a giraffe.

He stares back at me, and so I say the only sentence which springs to mind. I point to MindReader’s trousers lying in the road and say, “I, er, I forgot my jeans.”

Climbing down the apple tree, I can see your strength in me

I can’t begin to list how many exams I have taken. SATs, ballet exams; each becoming more and more serious until they became life-altering: the advanced ballet exam that made my feet bleed and made me get too thin; the A-levels I still get praised for in interviews; that first-class essay I wrote about Shakespeare’s Richard II, the equity and land exams I had back-to-back on the same day in which I luckily kept my head, my driving test (probably the hardest exam of my life). But to be honest, it’s been a really long time since I sat an exam and it was only in October that I had nowhere to be whatsoever let alone something requiring the high-functionality of an exam.

The exam was in the precise venue that I walked out of in 2008 and this combination of factors led to me anxiously pacing the blue-carpeted corridors, too frightened to cram like everybody else; more concerned with distracting my mind rather than focusing it.

The door was closed – and locked – and the clock was ticking and the papers were handed out. I did things one only does in exams – lined up my pens, turned my phone off, drank water – and opened the question paper.

I felt tired once I ascertained I could answer all the questions, the adrenaline dissipated; I did not sleep well (understatement) and still often feel more feeble than others might (or do I?). But then I looked at my pens, lined up, and at the clock in front of me and listened to the quiet scratching of everybody’s pens and thought this might be the very last time I do this. The very last time. All of those exams: hundreds of hours spent frantically quoting Marlowe and Sidney and Woolf. Thousands of hours spent learning case law by rote. And here I am: a professional, or very nearly. Already working, but not quite qualified. I am within a whisper of that Practising Certificate, and I am absolutely terrified something is going to take it away from me before I get there.

I stop daydreaming and finish the exam with five minutes to spare. I dither over a multiple-choice question, changing my answer and then changing it back. I add an asterisk to an essay question and add a statute provision I remember from law school. Then I put my pens away: a sign, a talisman of the confidence that I am trying to rebuild since it took a beating last summer. I may still be part-time and behind and the only person to raise their hand when the tutor asked, “and who covered the Companies Act 1985 instead of the Companies Act 2006 at law school?” but I am still here. “It’s amazing that you went back after getting glandular fever,” people say. “Well done you for persevering even though it’s taken you ages.” I would dismiss them, not wanting praise for dealing with a shitty situation as best as possible, but I see now, in my last ever exam, that I might deserve it after all. It has not been easy. I still do not find it easy to be here, under pressure – pressure to be well. But now, when I feel that pressure and feel the fear of my past chasing me, I no longer perceive my ability to deal with it as minimal, but leave it to Billygean instead. That woman who stays late to get the things done she promised she’d do; the future woman who I think I would want fighting my legal corner, the woman who always goes back to work after health set backs no matter how embarrassing, the woman who is frightened of going back to work full time but will do it anyway – she is the one I should trust, and I am starting to.

The course finishes in the early evening and I find myself walking to the office. I have no need to go in, but I want to send some emails and bridge the gap between the student and professional me. I walk all the way there – from one end of the Jewellery Quarter to the other end of the city centre – and as I look up at the blue sky, the drifting spring clouds that I missed last year stuck inside, I feel all the student Billygeans who have led up to the point merging into the professional me. Inside my office, I put my heels on and go back to work.

Post-Traumatic Something

I click onto my emails and see the confirmation. I will be returning to the College of Law next week, to complete the very final piece of my mandatory professional qualifications. I had forgotten about this course, this exam, in amidst the whole actual-working bit of it.

I open the email and just seeing the logo takes me back.

It was February 2008, and I was closing the door of MindReader’s car behind me. I was six weeks into the glandular fever that would – though I didn’t know it – limit my life for over three years. Everybody’s recollection is that it floored me immediately, but it didn’t go exactly like that. There was a strange interim period in January and February when I was sometimes jaundiced, sometimes blue with anaemia, sometimes too tired to stand up, when my glands felt like stones around my neck and under my armpits. In February 2008, en route to my first exam, my spleen was enlarged – I could feel it against my ribs – and the motion of moving my hand to lift my bag from the boot onto my shoulder caused a tidal wave of tiredness to sweep over me. My eyesight was fading in and out, changing minute-by-minute; a combination of the epithelial layer of my eye being shot to shit from the virus and my prescription changing because the muscles around the lenses were weak.

I said nothing on the way to the exam. I can tell you even today what I was wearing – boyfriend jeans, a teal-colour t-shirt. I took with me three Quality Streets leftover from Christmas and a bottle of Lucozade.

As long-time readers of my blog know, I did the most un-Billygean-like thing I have ever done in my entire life and walked out of that exam before I began, declaring myself not fit to sit. It was a combination of not being able to see the questions, being too tired to pick up my pen, and the rule imposed by the College of Law that if you begin an exam paper you cannot declare yourself unfit to sit and would have to take a fail grade. MindReader was in that exam, and I didn’t even look at him as I left. I was too tired to email the law firm who sponsored me through the course – who I now work for – and too tired to give a shit about the £50 I spaffed on a taxi on the way home. I got home and went to bed. It was the last time I was out of bed until May. It was the last time I left the house until July. Between that exam and my recovery which began in June there were many, many moments I wish I could forget: sitting in an ambulance the day my blood stopped clotting, seeing the doctors’ puzzled faces around my hospital bed, my father having to wash my hair for me, my boyfriend having to feed me, being too weak to sit up for ten minutes to play a board game on my birthday, being carried into the garden in April, walking to the kitchen for the first time at the end of May. The horrors go on. It is not easy for me to re-live this.

And now I’m going back to that college. My exam will be – I don’t doubt it, such is my soap-opera life – in the same room 412 that I walked out of six years ago.

I accept the course dates into my diary, shake my head, and open a can of coke at my desk, looking out of the window and appreciate for a minute that here I am, sitting up, all my organs doing what they should, and that I am doing something as unhealthy as drinking a can of coke after the super-healthy gluten-free casein-free caffeine-free paleo algae-eating supplement-taking years that followed the glandular fever.

Somebody approaches my desk. They put a court order down on it, a fingertip tracing lightly across the date for the hearing. “Alright to cover this, Billygean?” they say.

I look at the date and my mouth twists with irony. I went to the exact same location a year ago on that date, which was my last day at work before I got sick again. So different were my symptoms to the glandular fever that they are not even comparable, but nevertheless the memory of me driving up north in my car, sweating even though the air con was on, a hand shaking as I reached to pull my hair off my face, a nosebleed in the car on the way home fills me with a horror I can’t really articulate here. They are not rational, these memories. I do not need to think about these horrible memories, but I do. For once, I curse my skill at recollecting dates and times, because it does me no favours.

“That’s fine,” I say, taking the court order and staring at it.

And so next week I will go back to the College of Law and the week after I will go back to the next location I frequented before the second most-serious health setback in my life.

And I will be fine. More than fine.