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.
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.
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.
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.