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.

“Have you got any tips for aspiring writers?”

“How do I go about writing a book?”

“Can anyone learn how to write?”

OK. Deep breath. Here is what my mind says when I’m asked these questions:

Would you ask an Olympic sprinter for tips? Would you ask them how to run, or if anyone can learn how to run as fast as them? No, because you know that such an athlete has trained for years and years to get where they are in their career. So why should it be any different for a writer?

Of course, if you and I met at a party, say, and you asked me one of the questions above, I would not answer so rudely. I would probably still take a deep breath. And then I’d quote another writer, such as Neil Gaiman who said that, “The person who is most likely to succeed as a writer is the one who gets up and polishes a chair with their bottom for hours every day”. Or – my favourite – Margaret Atwood, who said, “Show up, show up, show up, and the Muse will too.” Perhaps the best tip of all could be shared with the Olympic sprinter, who might quote Nike’s “Just do it!” If it were that easy though, we would all be beating Dina Asher-Smith or Christian Coleman or writing that novel that everyone allegedly has in them. Wouldn’t we?

For me, writing is a fight. A fight for space, for time, for peace, for energy. A fight against the negative voices that tell me, “You are useless and you’ll never write another book, and in any case, why would you want to? There are enough of them out there already.” It’s a fight to get the words out, even when they don’t want to come. It’s a fight to hold on to that fleeting idea I had yesterday which I know will come good if only I can chase it down.

It’s a fight because writing is hard work. It requires days, weeks, months, years of training. You are always learning, always putting in the mileage, always trying to beat your personal best. You could spend those days and weeks and months and years in dreaming about writing, sure. You could dream of creating the perfect writing environment, of saving for the perfect desk, the perfect writer’s shed. You could dream for that moment when all the stars are finally aligned and you’ll be ready to sit down and write. You could do all these things, but if you never “show up”, don’t expect the Muse to either.

Say you do show up. And say that days and weeks and months – even years – go by and nothing happens. The words still fall flat, the sentences don’t land true. Should you give up? It depends. How much do you want this?

All I know is that after a while – and this “while” is no defined amount of time – if I’m lucky, if I’ve put in enough hours and enough dedication, if I’ve proved to the Muse that I am dedicated and loyal, there will come a time when she does show up. She will arrive, unexpectedly and unannounced, in all her golden glory, and time will lose its normal rhythm and hours will flee by as minutes and I’ll forget to eat or drink or go to the loo or change my clothes. My family will cease to exist for me, the dog will not get walked and the laundry and washing up will sit in piles. And I won’t care! Because I will have hit “flow”.

When you’re in flow it doesn’t matter that you haven’t got a writer’s room or a writer’s chair or a writer’s pen or notebook or special coffee mug. You could be sitting on a rock in a howling gale wearing your pyjamas and you’d keep going. When you’re in flow, the words pour out of you like liquid silver and you are euphoric: you have hit the sweet spot! This is it! Nothing else matters!

You write anywhere and everywhere and all the time when you are in flow. You write on the train, in the bath, standing up, lying down, on a bench, on a beach, in the park – hell, even on the loo. Being in flow is like being in love when you can’t get enough of one another, and being together is like drinking long and deep from the most delicious, most intoxicating wine you’ve ever tasted. It’s free-wheeling downhill on your bike when you were ten. It’s flying through the air on a zip wire. It’s the most exhilarating funfair ride of your life. And you’re not going to stop, oh no. You’ve got it now. This is what you have trained for. THIS is what it feels like to Be A Writer. This is The Writing Life, and you are never going to let it go.

What can I tell you? You will let it go. Because, just like that love affair or that bike ride or that rollercoaster, flow doesn’t last. If it did last, we wouldn’t survive it. No one can sustain that amount of adrenaline for ever. If we stayed in flow, we’d be sitting on that rock in a gale until we were washed away. We’d be caught up in a relationship that turns toxic, cuts us off from our friends and family and interferes with our thoughts so much that we become absent-minded and forget to sleep.

But when flow goes, as go it must, we mustn’t forget what it felt like. For it’s the promise of flow that keeps us going on the dark days when the words are refusing to budge. When you are chipping away at a lump of granite, despairing at ever getting to the perfectly sculptured image you just know lies within. When you are grinding out the sentences and they are not joining up, not making sense. Not. Going. Anywhere.

Sometimes, when things get really bad, you need to give yourself a break. It’s all very well saying “write every day” but that writing doesn’t have to be another chapter. Sometimes just showing up for your journal is enough to keep the writing muscle from atrophying. Some days an athlete needs to go for a walk instead of a 10-mile run.

If you can’t write, if the words won’t come at all, if you’re angry and crying with frustration, then read instead. Reading is a form of writing for the writer’s brain – it is the equivalent of stretching for the sprinter. As long as you come to the book or poem or essay with grace; as long as you dive in as though taking a plunge into some calm, flat, mirror-smooth lake, you’ll be fine. Sink into someone else’s words for a while. Be grateful for them. Let them roll over you, let them buoy you up. Turn your face to the sky and smile as the words spool through you. Let them feed you.

And then, once you’ve had enough of your reading holiday and you feel your own words stirring in you again, turn back to the blank page and spill them out. Just a little, every day. Go gently. Go quietly. Show up, show up, show up. And the Muse will too.

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 find 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.

activities Almanac Anna Wilson autism baking bird spotting bluebells butterflies children's non-fiction Christmas baking common dog violet Cornwall Elly Jahnz environment family festivals Halloween journal Kenna Macmillan Children's Books Monkey Business Monkey Madness National Trust Nature nature almanac nature diary Nature Month-by-Month nature notebook nettles nettle soup new life Nosy Crow Nosy Crow Books notebook red admiral Roald Dahl small tortoiseshell spring stinging nettles Summer's Shadow Vlad Vlad the World's Worst Vampire wildflowers writer writing

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.

E1C45C3D-E367-41FC-A0D9-F489B7442E76

This week sees the publication of A Place for Everything– a book which has taken me almost seven years to bring out into the world. I started writing about my parents, and the struggles we as a family were facing, in my journal in 2013. The book will be published this Thursday, 9th July.

That 2013 journal became a blog called Good Grief which I started writing a year after my father died from an unusual and aggressive form of cancer just as my mother was being sectioned under the Mental Health Act for extreme anxiety.

Mum’s subsequent diagnosis of autism at the age of 72 had me trying out a longer piece of writing as a way of trying to make sense of everything we had been through as a family. I completed the manuscript of my memoir in 2018, the year my mother died. The book is out this week, almost two years to the day that I typed the final words of my first draft.

Not all books take this long to see the light of day. There have been times when I have wanted it see it on the shelves a lot sooner. However, I am glad this one has taken its time. In the past two years I have learned a lot about writing: about narrative structure, about setting the tone, about taking my readers with me on a journey that has been painful and a lot harder to write than any of my books for children. I have also learned a lot about myself. I have realised that my grief was mainly expressed in raw anger while I was writing down those first pages two years ago, but that now I am able to approach it in a more gentle and forgiving way.

That is partly why I have chosen the last chapter of the book to read to you in this video. It is a letter to my mother which I hope sums up my love for her and shows my readers that the anger has gone – and all that is left is love.

6EED3583-C0E0-43DA-A379-871EF8842735