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.

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.”