Mum died on December 21, 2018.
Six months later, to the day, my wife boarded a plane bound for Abu Dhabi, like a sort of first-contact recon unit. This afternoon she was in Dubai. I was painting our eldest son’s bedroom in Worcester Park.
On July 25, I will board a plane along with our two boys also, conveniently, bound for Abu Dhabi, and it is there that we shall rebuild our lives and write a new story.
Winter was rough for a myriad of reasons. Mum passing seemed to scratch a punctuation point into our lives.
A question mark, because none of us knew how ill she was. She’d hidden it from us with such expert precision that it was only a month before she passed that I even discovered that she had emphysema. Protecting her boys, then, like any Mum would, but even so, a question mark laden with guilt.
An exclamation mark, because these are the moments that stick with you. I couldn’t drive because I’d broken my ankle a month before trying to keep up with the kids at a trampoline park. So, sitting in the back of the car as my wife drove through the rain-slicked streets of Tooting to Lewisham Hospital, Christmas revellers spilling out of pubs oblivious to the implosion that was occurring inside the car, I took a call from the hospital. We were too late. She was gone. At 69, no age. Then a call to my brother. She’s gone. What a life though…
Perhaps crucially, there was a comma. Because it gave both myself and my wife reason to pause. Amid all the quiet grief of January, all the forms and phone calls, the bureaucracy of death, were the photos.
In which Mum lived more life than I felt I’d lived my entire life. And so, there was also a quotation mark.
“Something has to change.”
Something had to change. We weren’t poor. We’ve never been exposed to the worst this lop-sided isle has to offer, but we were living month to month, working really hard for little financial reward. It was unsustainable. The kids are going to want to go to University in the next few years. We want to help them be able to do that. I joked to my wife that she should text her old boss, who had been working in Abu Dhabi for a decade. “See if there are any jobs out there.” Within a couple of hours, it was clear there was a job. She should send her CV. Over the coming weeks and months, she inched closer to a job that is to take our family to the Middle East.
Everything is going to change. I’m going to learn Arabic alongside the kids. We’re going to swim. We’re going to travel. We’re going to live. Mum always wanted to move to the sun but life never quite arranged itself to be possible.
She would have loved this whole process. She would have loved helping me clear and pack and paint the house. She would have taken the boys to give me an afternoon off. She would have been in Abu Dhabi with us more than we cared for. But of course, there is the irony. None of this would be happening if she was still alive.
We are unfeasibly lucky. I am aware of that, and there is still a significant part of me waiting for it to go wrong.
In the background to all of this is my writing. This is my first post here for nearly a year. Two years ago I was writing a new piece of flash fiction every day and posting it here. Then one of those stories became a piece of experimental fiction for the Creative Writing MA I was doing at Kingston University. It got a good mark, and I expanded it into a novella.
The reason I’ve not been here over the last 12 months is because I have been turning it into a novel. It is a thing, a lump of concrete. Now it needs sculpting into the story it is meant to be.
The course leader liked my work enough to put me in touch with a literary agent, who helped me through the dissertation. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was afforded six hour-long meetings with a well-respected agent near the British Museum to talk about my writing. Money can’t buy that – well, not the sort of money I’ve ever had – and I was determined the first time we met to present myself as a writer, not a student, someone who was taking it seriously, who had a long-term plan, who was in it for the long haul. I didn’t really care about my mark for the MA, it was just about writing the best book I possibly could.
We get on well. She was only contractually obliged to work with me up until last August, but we continue to meet. We met in January, two days before Mum’s funeral, when I had sent her a rushed 68k-word draft finished the day before Mum died.
My last conversation with Mum was to tell her I’d sent it off. It doesn’t matter how old we get, we still continue to seek out parental approval and pride. I’ve been lucky to receive it unconditionally, rushed draft or otherwise and she said she’d read it next week, but she lasted no more than another 24 hours.
There is another irony here. The novel is the story of a 14-year-old boy coming to terms with the death of his older brother. It is written in close first-person. I have spent the best part of two years inside Jefferson’s grieving mind. Having finished that draft, I was given just over a day before being thrust into my own grief and a strange thing happened.
It became impossible to disentangle my own grief from that of Jefferson. I couldn’t work out if I was feeling certain things simply because I’d been writing about it for a year. I couldn’t be certain I was being genuine, and what kind of freak can’t feel genuine feelings following the death of his Mum? Not healthy. Jefferson deals with the death of his brother in a very specific way, but there is undoubtedly some of me in him. Separating the two of us was a challenge that I think I am still working through.
Then, I met the agent again last week, two days before my wife left for Abu Dhabi, when I had sent her a 98k-word rewrite. I am getting there, I know what I have to do with the next draft and I am incredibly grateful to her for her help.
So that’s where I have been. Once we are out there and settled, I plan on posting fiction here regularly once again. New stories, to give my brain a break from the edits of the novel.
Before then, it is the thrill of shifting our little family to the desert. Thanks for the inspiration Mum.
Here Comes the Sun.