It’s been a strange year. The break up of a relationship for which I had reasonably high hopes. A dose of medication (for a seemingly innocuous nasal complaint) that sent me hurtling into my darkness, brakes off, no handrails. Work pressure and deadlines that kept me awake at night despite the nature of the job itself; certainly no lives were being saved. And worse than any of this – horribly, terrifyingly worse – the news that a friend’s cancer had returned and that her life would be over sooner than any of us – least of all her husband and their young daughters – were expecting.*
But amidst those fierce flames, there was something, planted by my dying friend. The realisation that I need to keep reminding myself that whatever life has thrown at me, I am still here. And the ‘here’ that I inhabit isn’t at all bad.
Sure, I’m not anybody’s favourite – no one loves me best – but I still have wonderful friends with whom to grab a spontaneous drink, or spend a well-planned evening or short break. Sure, my job can be stressful but it’s interesting, and it pays me pretty well; and because I’m not saving lives, just editing words, I’ve adjusted my reactions to the stresses that the job brings. I try to remember the mantra I have used on and off for years when managing colleagues’ own stresses and worries: Nobody dies.
Instead of retreating to my default position of sadness and self-pity when thinking about parts of my life, I now concentrate on what I do have. It’s simple enough. It’s what many people do every day and yet my tendency to depression has often made this a challenge. But now I make a conscious effort to hoodwink the negative sides of my mental health; I work on reducing the doubts and the sadnesses, acknowledging their existence and then replacing them with an open laptop, a book, music, a film, a play, a gig, and human diversion if it’s possible and available.
So, I cherish my rented flat more than ever, planning ways to make it even nicer than it is. I curl up on the sofa or in my armchair and I read like it’s the last day that books will be on earth.
I visit the park near my home. I’ve done this a lot – it’s on my doorstep and is great for showing off the dinosaurs and the lake and the little zoo to visitors. But I realise that although I look at it, I rarely see it. So of late I have taken to immersing myself in Private Passions or Desert Island Discs or Witness, and walking and running around the park, stopping to see my surroundings, eyes open, head up. If it’s a quiet weekend, I might do this more than once a day. It gives me exercise, fresh air and hope. It takes me out of my head, a place I tend to spend more time than is always good for me.
I go on holidays – alone and with friends, for writing or resting or sightseeing; in July I travelled three times in the space of two weeks. I went shopping and pub-crawling and walking in Dublin with a friend; swimming and reading alone in Dubrovnik. I ended the month with friends in their village near Dusseldorf, playing with their brilliant and boisterous six-year-old. And in between these trips, at home in London, I wrote the second draft of my screenplay. And then I booked a boutique B&B in Howarth for the day after my September birthday, in readiness for draft three.
‘My producer’ – R – and I met the week before my birthday to go over draft two. I knew I had achieved a lot of what he had suggested during discussions of the previous draft. I’d developed some scenes and characters, clarified the plot. I had formatted the script using the proper software. I was behaving like a Professional Screenwriter. But I had ignored other pieces of advice in favour of my original scenes; I thought I had failed to consider properly some minor elements of structure and the role of some of the characters.
And then there we were, outside Nike Town, Oxford Circus. We hugged hello. Then he gave me another hug, because ‘you have an excellent screenplay. One more pass and it’s ready.’ I was speechless. We went to a nearby bar for celebratory cocktails. I drank a Martini Royale, because it seemed apt for the period in which the film is set – the mid-1960s. He fired up a fancy piece of equipment and we went through his script notes. It was mostly positive: some great women characters; I’m apparently good with voices and have a gift for dialogue; the script is moving and funny.
I allowed myself then, as I do here, a semi-humble glow. Semi-humble because I was and still am genuinely surprised and thrilled, but also really, really pleased to be validated by someone who knows what he’s talking about, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t sing about that.
Whilst contemplating our cocktails we looked over the PDF of the screenplay for his comments, and he developed his criticisms. I have an occasional tendency for clumsy exposition; I’ve written ‘the worst scene header’ he has ever read (I’m oddly proud of that); there are ‘too many scenes of DD in nightclubs’ (what? There can never be enough scenes of DD in nightclubs, in my view). He gave me advice, the kind a writer can really act on – to do a series of different ‘passes’ through the script, reading it for different reasons. I have to do a DD pass (resituating this particular character, an act that will also allow me to develop her relationship with the central character and therefore illuminate more aspects of his life). Then there’s the KA pass, making sure that a previously tricky character, one that I had finally ‘got right’, was serving a significant part of the plot. I must do the DB and AF pass, to check that their relationship is cemented, not by adding extra scenes but by ensuring that what does take place between them tells us what we need to know about their life together, and helps to explain the actions of DB.
There are a couple of structural issues to deal with. I rarely find this kind of thing easy, but this time I have a solid base upon which to work, with a currently successful approach to the interweaving of the current and the past.
And so here I am, in Haworth by way of Leeds and Keighley. I have a view of the Bronte parsonage from my window; the moors upon which I take a morning run and an afternoon walk spread out before me like butter, as far as the eye can see. On my first run I listened to Joan Bakewell’s Desert Island Discs. Harold Pinter makes a brief appearance in my screenplay, so listening to Bakewell discuss her affair with him was useful and interesting. She also spoke with passion about ageing and being open to ‘friendships’ (in response to a question about romantic relationships). I’ve always liked her but she became a beacon to me during the course of the show: smart, wise, sensible; a life of the brain and the emotions, lived fully. Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy accompanied me to and from Hebden Bridge. I took the bus up to Heptonstall with the obvious intention of finding Sylvia Plath’s grave. My first mistake was going into the wrong cemetery. I could have looked it up before I visited, but part of me was cherishing the idea of walking amongst the graves and happening upon Sylvia like a longed-for accident.
Instead of relying on the internet, I spoke to my friend Kellye, who visited the grave earlier this year, and she sent photos to guide me. This led me to the correct location, and from there it was easy to find Sylvia. I gasped a little, let a few tears fall, thought about Sylvia and what drove her to this tiny, overgrown grave, with its long dead bunch of red roses strewn across it, at the position where I imagined her belly would be. I thought about my mum and my dad, the dead in my own life. And I let my hand move over the name and the inscription and I let the words seep into my head.
And I came back to Haworth – and I’ll go back to London – to live again in my writing. And it’s where I’ll stay, because it’s something I will always have. Something permanent amongst the necessary and inevitable temporariness of life.
*Updated on 9 January 2016. Isabelle made it through a low-key but lovely Christmas at home with her husband, their twin girls and her parents. They were all there when Isabelle died on 3 January.