I am in the middle of editing a picture book. As I laid the scenes out yesterday and looked at the shape of the story, I realised that I needed to pull the whole thing apart. I began separating out the spreads, re-setting the text, cutting and pasting and movings things around – and then I saw the holes appear.

It’s tempting to give in to panic when I’m at this stage of writing – I nearly always convince myself that the whole thing needs to be ripped up and thrown out, that it’s rubbish, that I’m rubbish. And what was I thinking, starting this idea in the first place?

It doesn’t matter how long or short the project is. A picture book can take just as long to fix as a novel. I’ve got a picture book in production now which I first wrote in 2015. The editing was only just finished in 2021 because of the glorious dance that is involved in picture-book writing once a designer and an illustrator are on board: the pictures always end up doing a huge amount of the storytelling, and so I must cut my words again and again until the balance between image and text is just right.

While I was unpicking the current project I found myself thinking about my grandmother and how similar her job as a seamstress was to my job as a writer. Grandma made all her own clothes as well as those of her children and her grandchildren. Some she made from patterns she bought in the department store in the nearby town. Others she made by pulling apart old clothes, either to reuse the fabric and fashion it into something new, or to see how she had made the old item so that she could copy it in a new fabric. Either way, she started with a lot of odd-shaped pieces which, laid out on her dining room table, looked like nothing less than a very complex jigsaw to the eight-year-old me.

And so it is with writing – for me, at least. I start by rummaging in my brain for an assortment of off-cuts – snatches of conversation, a face, a place, the germ of a narrative – and then I begin stitching a few of them together to see how they’ll shape up. After a few days I normally have an idea of the overall pattern. There are some holes and there are a few pieces which might not look right when stitched together. But if I keep going long enough, I usually find I have something approximating a finished text. And then I sit back and take a long hard look at it – and pull the thing apart.

I could not bother with this unpicking and restitching and just send my agent a patchwork object, telling her, ‘It could be a short story, or a picture book or even the first few chapters of a novel. I’m not sure.’ But that wouldn’t be much use to her. She wouldn’t know what to do with it, just as I wouldn’t have known what to do with an old coat with an arm missing or a pair of trousers with a hole in the seat. But in the pulling apart and the laying out of shapes and the rejecting of tired bits of worn-out old cliché or chunks of jarring dialogue and clunky turns of phrase, I can refine the overall shape. And hopefully, I’ll end up with something that hangs together well enough to convince my agent I have written a story that will sell. Maybe some readers will even think it’s worth handing down when they’ve finished with it, just as I am still wearing clothes that my grandmother made.

Autism in women has surfaced in the media again in the past two weeks, with the talented and beautiful journalist and TV presenter Melanie Sykes talking about her late diagnosis at the age of 51, followed by TV personality Christine McGuinness discovering in her 30s that she too is autistic. Neither woman fits the “classic” image of what an autistic person is like. Both of them are intelligent, articulate, successful and strikingly glamorous. Some people might even ask how a diagnosis could make a difference to them when they seem to have everything in their lives pretty much sorted.

Melanie Sykes in The Guardian
Christine McGuinness on “Our Family and Autism”, BBC One

This was Mum’s experience too. When she got her diagnosis at the age of 72 some family friends scoffed. Some of the comments we had were: “She doesn’t look autistic!” “But she’s so intelligent!” “I thought you had to be good at Maths and computers – your mum isn’t interested in those things.”

Both Melanie’s interviews in the press and Christine’s frank conversations in her family’s documentary addressed all these points. There is a reason that autism is talked about as a “spectrum”, and we have to get away from the narrow view we have had of it for so long, if only because such a restrictive view prevents women like Melanie, Christine and my mum from getting the support and understanding they crave and need.

Melanie has talked about the “relief” of having a diagnosis that explained why she was the way she was. And Christine spoke very movingly in the programme about how she “didn’t mind being autistic – it’s just exhausting.” The exhaustion is something Melanie addressed as well – the exhaustion of always having to observe her surroundings, to watch how other people navigate the world so that she can work out how to behave in a way that will be seen as more “normal” than how she feels inside.

I was particularly affected by Christine’s words when she is in conversation with the autism expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. At one point she is talking to him about how she has scored very highly in an AQ (Autism Quotient) test, and Christine tries to laugh it off saying, “I thought I’d hid it better.” She admits to trying to game the system by answering the questions as she thinks a neuro-“typical” person would have done. Baron-Cohen tells her that “a lot of women and girls do try and hide it” and Christine agrees, saying:

“I feel like I’ve faked a lifetime – I try and mirror whoever I’m around to try and fit in. But I don’t [fit in]. I can manage it in small doses, but […] when I am on my own people wouldn’t recognise me.”

Christine goes on to say that in her 20s she had “eight years when I stayed in and didn’t socialise.” I gasped at this and even Baron-Cohen seems shocked: “You literally stayed in – for eight years?”

His reaction reminds me of the time a psychologist asked me if Mum ever had an issue with timing, which is a classic autistic trait, and I paused before answering, “Well, she was anxious when I went past my due date with both my pregnancies – she tried to put pressure on me to have my son induced.” The psychologist’s face did the same as Baron-Cohen’s – it registered shock and then quickly and professionally reined it back before saying, “That sounds quite extreme.”

But that’s the thing – when you live with autism, either as an autistic person or a relative or partner of someone who’s autistic – these things are your “normal”. It was normal for Christine not to go out for eight years. She didn’t want to socialise and she found it easier to avoid people, so she didn’t go out. Mum was like this in later life when Dad became sick and then died – why should she want to go out now that her anchor in life was no longer there to help her hide her “abnormality”? It was normal too for Mum to try on outfits before meeting other people and even to practise what she was going to say. It was also exhausting trying to hide the deep anxiety she felt about socialising. The end result was huge meltdowns that would occur once she was back in the safety of her own home – something Christine and her husband talk about in the programme also.

The part of the documentary that upset me the most was when Christine said, “I’ve never really had friends so it wasn’t an issue [not going out]. And I’m absolutely fine with being autistic […] I feel better knowing that I’m not mad.” I started crying at that point because this was the label Mum was given in later life by the mental health services. She was labelled psychotic – another word for mad, let’s face it – and was given strong drugs to dampen down her meltdowns and her anxiety, both of which are autistic behaviours that need support and understanding, not drugs. Autism is not madness and it can’t be cured – nor should it be, as it is simply another way of navigating this chaotic and sometimes scary world. When Christine said, “I just think it’s just me being difficult all the time – I feel like I’m a pain, like a nuisance. I feel like a hindrance”, she was also saying, almost word for word, what Mum would say about herself. It broke my heart.

I came away from this programme feeling – even more strongly than I did when I wrote A Place for Everything – that it is not surprising that autistic women mask and “mirror” the behaviour of others to “fit in” as both Melanie and Christine (and Mum) have done. Women are not expected to stand out as much as men. They are not allowed to be strange or different. Women who are like this get branded “difficult” and “odd”.

Men, on the other hand, can be brusque, odd, quirky, and when they are, they are branded “eccentric” or “intellectual”. They can even get away with looking a bit strange, whereas women try to be attractive and wear the “right” clothes and have the “right” hair, because that is what society expects.

No wonder women like Melanie and Christine are exhausted. As Christine says, they have “faked a whole life” – played a part, gone out every day as though walking on to a stage in front of millions of people into chaotic and scary situations that they have spent their whole lives trying to control and navigate. I am just thrilled for them that they have got their diagnoses when they have. Perhaps now they will have a better chance of finding support and understanding, rather than staggering on into old age having no idea why exactly it is that they feel so different from everyone around them.

It’s Just so Exhausting

I love the sea. I love it in winter when it is wild and dark and furious. I love it in spring when the waves are still choppy, but the water is calm enough and warm enough to allow me to stay in for more than five minutes without shivering. I love it in summer when it is smooth and green and clear as glass and I can swim three times a day if I want to.

And as it is with the things we love, I worry about the sea. I worry about the way we humans have thoughtlessly polluted it. I worry when I go down to my favourite beaches here in Cornwall and find litter thrown on to – or even buried in – the sand. I have found dirty nappies, dog poo bags, used barbecues, crisp packets, coffee cups and once even a toothbrush. Some of the litter is blown in on stormy days, other items are left behind by lazy humans who don’t give a second thought to the pollution they are causing, or the distress they will cause to our non-human friends.

A turtle will eat a plastic bag, thinking it is a jellyfish, and then choke on it and die. A bird will get tangled in plastic netting or the plastic rings that hold drinks cans together – then the bird will not be able to fly, and it will die. Humans and non-humans alike will cut themselves on discarded metal and glass and will get sick from infections and disease spread by poo that finds its way into the water from nappies and dog poo bags.

How can we change the minds of the humans who don’t seem to care? Perhaps by showing them that non-humans need the sea just as much, if not more, than we do.

This is what happens to the child in my new book – they forge a special connection with a seal and realise that we can all do our bit to keep the sea clean if only we pull together.

I was inspired to write this book because where I swim there are regularly seals who come to swim with me. I like to think they are keeping an eye on me to make sure I take care and don’t leave any trace of my visit when I leave.

I was also inspired by the national “beach clean” initiatives. If you can’t join in a big beach clean, do take a bag and collect any litter you find when you go to the seaside this year. Even a two-minute beach clean before you settle on your blanket can make a huge difference. And please, please take your litter home with you when you go.

The Wide, Wide Sea is written by me, Anna Wilson, and illustrated by the award-winning artist, Jenny Løvlie. It is available via the National Trust and can be bought in Sainsbury’s and through all good bookshops. Buy local if you can!

Why do you swim in cold water? Do you really do it every day? Doesn’t it give you a shock? Isn’t it dangerous?

You may as well ask me, Why do you write? And people have done this. They have also said, You must have to be very disciplined – do you really do it every day? And: Isn’t it hard?

Neither swimming in cold water nor writing come easily. Both require a certain amount of discipline; if you give up regular practice you lose your edge. This is true for many things in life. I know from bitter experience, having played musical instruments every day for years until I was pretty good, then once working life intruded, letting the daily practice slip, and finding that, years later, I was not so very good at playing any more.

Yes, I get a shock when I plunge into cold water. I am acclimatised now to the point that I can stay in for a lot longer than I used to and I don’t get the chills afterwards, but that doesn’t diminish the sharp seize that grips my heart when I lower myself in. And, yes, there are days when I get to the water’s edge thinking, ‘I am too tired today/too cold/not in the mood.’ Just as there are days when I look at a blank page and think, ‘I have nothing to say/don’t know what to write/am too tired/too cold/not in the mood.’

Yesterday I ran down to the cove and heard the sea’s loud whispers long before I could see its peaks and troughs. I told myself that a swim would not be on the cards today, and that in any case I didn’t feel like it. I had slept badly and was feeling melancholy, yet I kept on following the path, telling myself I would ‘just sit and look’. I pushed through the blackthorn and gorse and saw that, yes, the sea was choppy and, yes, the sky was dark grey and threatening rain. But there was not so much of a swell and the rain wasn’t likely to fall right overhead for a good ten minutes or more. Before I could talk myself out of it, I was throwing off my clothes, pulling my costume from my bag and heading to the edge of the rocks.

The cold made me shout and I paddled furiously towards my destination – a large rock about 25 metres away that my kids call Island Tosh. Once there, I was already grasped by the tingling sensation that is the addiction I crave, and the journey back to shore was blissful. I had stopped shouting and was swimming at a normal pace, enjoying the dark green glass of the water sliding over my hands, the feeling of warmth moving through my core, the mixture of greys and blues swirling in the sky overhead. I swam back out to Tosh one more time, grinning like an idiot, feeling the push and the pull of the sea as it played with me, making it harder to swim the closer I got to Tosh, but giving me a gentle shove back to the rocks as I turned around for the last time.

I pushed myself up and out, buzzing, talking to myself about how it felt to have swum a hundred metres in the sea in the second week in December. My dog watched me from a distance, disapproval written loud on her soft, loyal face. Why do you do this? she was asking, as so many people do.

The answer is the same as the reason I return to the page every day, however I am feeling: because I have to, because there is no other way to feel that I am truly alive. Writing, like swimming, is my own personal factory reset. The minute I plunge in – be it into cold water or a fresh new page – I am switching myself off and on again. Music used to do this to me. As a teen, if I were in a filthy hormonal mood I would run to the piano. An hour or so of crashing chords and tumbling scales and arpeggios, and I would re-emerge; washed clean, purified, my anger lost somewhere in those black and white keys.

Now it is the black and white of the words on the page. Or the black, blue and grey of the sea. The two things are so intertwined that I can hardly see the seams. When I am swimming, I am writing in my head. And often, like today, when I am writing, I am swimming in my head too.

Taking the plunge sometimes brings a shock, yes, but it always brings rewards.

This morning I woke to the news that, thanks to a National Trust project, beavers have built a dam on Exmoor for the first time in 400 years. The timing is perfect as tonight is a full moon, which is sometimes known as a Beaver Moon. This is because First Nations in America knew that beavers built their dams at this time of the year.

Image from Nature Month-by-Month, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

Beavers have had a hard time in this country – they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century because people used to take their fur to make hats and other clothing. Also an oil called ‘castoreum’ which beavers secrete from glands in their body was believed to be good for humans, so it was put in medicines and perfumes.

The beavers on Exmoor have been reintroduced in a controlled way, under a special licence, to help prevent flooding and restore streams that had dried up.

Image from Nature Month-by-Month, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

This new beaver dam on Exmoor is very special as it is the first one to be seen in the UK for almost half a millennium. As well as being a superb natural way of managing the flow of the river, the dam creates a wetland for other species. This means that creatures such as my favourite bird, the kingfisher, are likely to be seen there and it will become a breeding ground for lots of other wildlife.

So three cheers for the beavers on this, the night of the Beaver Moon!

I love to swim in open water all year round. Before I moved to Cornwall I was swimming in rivers and lakes, although I had to give up the river swimming in autumn once the water levels rose and mud choked the streams. I would watch the river rushing along in full spate after heavy rains, pushing ahead branches and great swathes of farmyard plastic as though furiously trying to cleanse itself, and I would know that the river was not in the mood to welcome me for a while. So I would go to the mirror calm of a lake nearby instead and swim ever decreasing lengths as the temperatures dropped. It is perhaps because I retreated to this quiet, manmade, inland stretch that I never truly realised the impact of the changing of the seasons on swimming in cold water, other than what the falling mercury told me.

“Four degrees today!” we’d yell as we plunged in and checked the thermometer hanging from the pontoon. “Nearly two – look!”

We took huge pleasure in pushing our bodies to these limits, huge pride in what others saw as madness. Or stupidity. It made me feel alive and happy, no matter what else was going on that day.

Now that I swim in winter seas, I know a different kind of swimming. The temperatures never fall to that of inland water, so it is possible to stay immersed for longer and to do more actual swimming rather than simply bobbing about. Nevertheless, the winter sea presents other challenges: even on a relatively calm day, the current is stronger than in the summer months and you can find yourself pushed and pulled around when you least expect it.

Yesterday I went down to the cove and felt that rush of delight I get when I realise that the water is calm enough for me to enter. It is a case of “each day as it comes” at this time of year: you can leave the house on a windless day, the sky blue with tiny scudding clouds and think, “I’ll go for a swim”, but as you walk down through the woods you will already be hearing the sea roaring and the wind whipping itself into a frenzy. It is never possible to predict what the conditions will be like. Yesterday, though, they were perfect.

I lowered myself into the jade-green water. Sunlight danced in a path from the Point, as though laying down a golden trail for me to follow. The cold seized at my chest and the back of my head as I pushed out and I took deep, panting breaths, feeling them catch in my throat, forcing myself to breathe out slowly, not to gasp. Gasping is the most common cause of drowning. I remind myself of this every time I swim in cold water.

I pushed out and out and was suddenly caught by a medium-sized breaker, the type of which in summer I would ride out with pleasure. This was a high spring tide, though, and the water was muscular. I was pushed towards the rocks and had to strengthen and lengthen my stroke, swimming diagonally against the tow. A mild panic spiked through me, but after only three strokes I was out of the worst of it, allowing the current to take me serenely back to shore. The shock was not enough to put me off striking out again and I managed six “lengths” of the little inlet before deciding that, sadly, enough was probably enough for one day.

I went back to my desk and tried to write. This is what I have been doing for months now – trying. My thoughts push and pull me around. I strike out on to the page and find myself pushed back again and again. It is a case of one word forward, three words back. It has been like this for so long I am beginning to think that I will never write another book. When that thought strikes me I am seized with the same spike of panic that shoots through me when the sea pulls me back towards the rocks.

And then I think, if swimming is harder in winter, is it any surprise that writing is too? Especially during a winter in which I am forbidden from going anywhere or meeting anyone. I am trying to write a book that requires me to meet with people to interview them, to go to libraries to do research. Yes, I can phone people and email them and there is always the internet for looking things up. But that would be like going to do lengths in an indoor heated pool, choked with chlorine and lit with a harsh artificial glare, instead of welcoming the sea’s invigorating embrace.

Phoning someone – or worse, Zooming them – is not the same as sitting down at a café table, the windows steaming up and shielding us from the gales and storms as we laugh and tell stories and share thoughts and dreams. Googling information is not the same as going into a reading room that is reverberating with the energy from the silent whirring cogs of a hundred brains, all thinking about and reading about and writing about a hundred different things.

But then swimming in the winter sea is not the same as setting off across the bay in a millpond flat sea, spotting a curious seal who is lazing on his back, or watching as the cormorants take off from a rock to skim the surface near your head. Yet the experience of the water is no less magical in November than it is in May, merely different.

Maybe, then, I should practise some acceptance: I should tell myself that, sure, there are days when the writing is easy and flows as smoothly as warm, sun-gold water, and there are days when the undertow has you in its grasp and the words are flung up high up on to the rocks and out of your reach. The trick is perhaps not to fight it, but to write differently – in a diagonal, accepting the effort involved, taking my time, until the words are ready to ease and carry me back to shore.

I am trying to coax a new book out of the ground. Some days the words shoot out of my hands and on to the page. Others I dig away and nothing but specks of dust float out. On days such as these I usually give up the writing and choose to walk instead. I go down to the sea and, if the tides and the waves will have me, I plunge in, shouting at the water which gets colder with every day that passes. If the sea is not in a mood to welcome me, I carry on walking – up to the cliffs, higher and higher, feeling my blood swirl, my heart pound, my muscles stretch. I follow my dog who leaps ahead of me, making light work of the steep, mossy ground as she chases after squirrels who dart up trees and sit above her head, swearing and taunting.

I make my way to my favourite oak at the top of the cliff. She is a Turkey oak, her leaves longer and more elegantly elongated than those of her sturdy English cousin. She leans out over the precipice beneath her, her branches stretching towards the sea. Her body language is one of yearning. She leans away from the wind, longing for the light, her bows spreading over tumbling walls and the smaller saplings that she seems to be protecting, taking them under her wing.

Some days I go straight to her and put my arms around her, resting my cheek on her moss-soft bark. I breathe in time to her wind-rocked movement – if I close my eyes it is as if we are breathing together. We are, of course, I know that; it is not just the illusion of the wind. What I breathe out, the oak breathes in. The chemical exchange gifts me oxygen and the spiritual one inspires me; holding her, feeling her move, I know that everything will be all right. Not in a glib way like some childlike belief in an answer to a simple prayer, but in the sense that, with a longer view, knowing that we are but specks on this planet compared with this ancient oak, things will turn out to be as they should. This oak knows this, she who has been here since the previous owners first planted these cliffs with daffodils over one hundred years ago. She has seen my husband’s grandfather walk beneath her with his young twin daughters, she has seen his grandmother walk alone here after her husband’s death. She has seen my children rush down the path below her, shouting and laughing, fishing nets and buckets bouncing on their arms. And now she sees me – a middle-aged woman, tired and anxious, worrying about my future and the future of my family.

I stand back and take in her perfection. Yes, she is old and bent; yes, she is marked and spotted with lichen and moss and sprawling ivy. But the shape of her is perfect. She bends as gracefully as an ageing ballerina; her grace spreads out to me as I stare and marvel at her. When I stand back and take a proper look at what Nature is doing without us, I can see that she always finds her own shape. In that moment I know that I have to have more faith in the natural order of things. I have to keep going, keep breathing, keep writing, just as that tree keeps growing. And if I lean a little too far away from the wind, or I let moss creep along in between the paragraphs or ivy choke some of the phrases, that is all right. The text will grow if I keep letting it. And once it is done, I can stand back and see if I like the shape.

Our last chick left the nest four days ago. He was more than ready. He had outgrown it long ago, his wings so strong and wide he would regularly knock into things. He had become frustrated with the lack of space long before the time had come to let him stand, teetering on the edge, ready for his first flutter into the big wide world. He had been given everything he needed, and more, to help him navigate this next stage. It was time to let him leap.

I had waved his sister off three years before, and that had been hard: leaving her in an empty student flat in a strange city, trying to avoid the look of panic in her eyes as she realised she was on her own for the first time in her life. I had coped by rushing home to her brother and his routine of school and drama club and pets and homework and late-night pick-ups from party venues. I had thrown myself into writing and taken on a teaching job and tried to stifle the heavy, pressing, empty feeling in my chest whenever I walked past her bedroom.

Now there are two empty bedrooms to walk past. And perhaps because I have spent more time one-to-one with my son, the heaviness in my chest seems harder to ignore. A friend asked me how he was getting on the other day and I embarrassed myself by bursting into snotty tears, as though he had died rather than moved a few hundred miles away.

On the journey to his halls of residence he became quieter even than usual. My mind whirred with things I yearned to say to him, but knew I shouldn’t. Instead I spoke a lot of nonsense to fill the silence. My mouth said, “Would you like a snack?” while my head asked, “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?” My mouth said, “Goodness, how did it get to be lunch time?” as my head asked, “Are you worried about missing friends?” My mouth said, “Will there be supper in halls for you tonight?” My head said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

When I went to university, over thirty years ago, my parents helped me unload the car and then came to my room and hovered, not wanting to leave me, unsure of how to say goodbye. I had no idea what they were feeling, and I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I wanted them to go as soon as possible so that I could get on with this next exciting chapter of my life. My son was spared such awkward unwanted parental attention. The virus has made sure of that. We had to drop and go.

Fledgling birds are sometimes found sitting on their own, looking – to us humans – lost and abandoned. We misinterpret their situation and often make things worse for them by intervening, trying to put them back into the nest they have just flown. In fact, the parents are usually nearby and watching out for their young. They may be attending to four or five young that are scattered in different directions, but they will most likely return to care for the one that seems to have been left to fend for itself. Fledglings produce sounds that their parents recognise, so one of them will return and care for it in time. When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return; it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in as it will hop right back out.

So it must be with me and my two chicks. There is no point in trying to put them back into the nest. But I can stay alert to their calls for help and be there for them when they need me. I have given them roots and now I must let them open their wings and soar.

Today is the Autumn Equinox, also known as Harvest Festival or the festival of Mabon. It’s the time of year when we officially say goodbye to summer. It certainly feels like that where I am today! Yesterday it was clear blue skies and calm seas, today it’s drizzly and grey and the leaves are falling in the woods. We’re at a turning point in the year, and winter is lurking around the corner.

From Nature Month-by-Month 2020, by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Elly Jahnz

The Harvest Festival is the closest thing we have in the UK to the North American tradition of Thanksgiving. The word “harvest” comes from the Old English hærfest meaning “autumn”. In years gone by it was a very important time in the farming calendar as the success of the harvest could mean the difference between life or death for a whole community. So if the harvest was good, it made sense to give thanks.

We are not as connected to our natural environment as we used to be, so the traditions of bringing in the harvest don’t touch most of us. And with the news as grim as it is there doesn’t seem much to be thankful for. We’re worried about our family and friends, and in some cases we don’t know when we might be able to see them again.

In times such as these, is even more important than ever for us to look after our mental health. I find that when I focus on being thankful for things, life feels more manageable. I also find that it helps if I can get outside into fresh air, away from crowds – and preferably into water.

Wherever you are today, I hope that you can find something to be thankful for. Keep safe and well – and a Happy Equinox to you all.

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Time was something Mum obsessed over. Like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland she would pace back and forth before she needed to be anywhere, checking her watch and her father’s old carriage clock and the grandfather clock in the hall, muttering over and over, “We’re going to be late!”

No wonder, perhaps, that I seem to have inherited this trait. It drives my family mad. I have a preference for being at least five minutes early for any appointment and get tight-chested and prickly with panic if stuck in traffic, watching the minutes race on by.

It’s a slippery thing, time. And the older I get, the more wily it becomes. Was it really five years ago today that Dad died? Because if I focus on that morning, not dissimilar to the one I can see today through my study window – quiet and still, the light low and golden – I can put myself exactly where I was and the years roll away and I am back there, by his side, watching his time run out.

Five years ago today time was of the essence. I had woken on the first day of a holiday on a remote island in the Chumphon Archipelago to a call from my sister to say that Dad had only 36 hours left to live. A quick calculation revealed that I would need every last second of those precious hours to make it back to the UK in time to see Dad before he kept his appointment with death.

I went to the beach while my husband raced around getting a taxi and booked a place on a ferry for me. The taxi had to arrive in the next ten minutes or I would miss the ferry. Oh, my fur and whiskers! While my husband rushed, I forced myself to walk slowly along the white sand. I picked up pieces of coral that looked like bleached bone. How was it possible that I was on a beach under an early morning tropical sun, while my dad was lying in a bed in the middle of the night in Kent, waiting to die. Had we done the maths right? Would my time-travelling across the zones from east to west get me to Dad before it was too late?

Thirty-six hours is not long. A day and a night and a day. Time that is easily wasted. I could spend thirty-six hours doing nothing but read, eat, sleep, repeat. Thirty-six hours is also the longest period of time a person can endure. I know this twice over, because my daughter took thirty-six hours to arrive into this world and there was not one second of that time that was not stretched with pain and fear.

In the end it did take exactly thirty-six hours for me to get to that bedside in Kent from that beach on Koh Tao. Thirty-six hours of excruciating minutes that crawled across the face of every clock I checked as though a curse had been put on them; as though I were living out a nightmare in which I was filled with a desperate need to reach my destination, but my legs were filled with lead and no amount of effort on my part was going to get me there fast enough.

I should have been used to this feeling. I had spent the past three years running on lead-filled legs, pushing boulders up hills only to have them roll back down and flatten me, time after time after time. Mum had been sick for so long by this point it had become normal to wake every morning weighed down by dread over what the day would bring. And then Dad’s cancer had crashed in and ripped the fabric of our lives apart and honestly there were days when I wanted to throw my head back and laugh like the mad women my mother was sharing a ward with.

Time played tricks on me over and over during that period. At one point in the early summer I was driving to see Dad in hospital and I completely forgot what month it was. My teenage kids seemed to suddenly skip a couple of years overnight and become young adults before my eyes. My skin wrinkled and my hair grew white as I stared at my reflection. A year disappeared in the blink of an eye.

I wasn’t too late in the end. I walked into the darkened room where Dad lay, and exactly one hour later he drew his last breath. A breath so deep it took every last ounce of energy from him. It was, quite literally, his last gasp. Sometimes cliches are the only way to go.

Now it’s five years later. Five whole years of breathing and sleeping and reading and writing and eating and playing and laughing and loving and crying and remembering and grieving and living. Five whole years without Dad. And two and a half without Mum. And yet it’s not five years. It’s a nanosecond. A wink. A shiver. It’s as though it were only yesterday. And long may that feeling last, for as long as I can hold them in my mind’s eye, they will still be here, Mum and Dad. Together. Time without end.

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