I am on the train from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh. The guard is apologising.

‘I want to apologise unreservedly for the lack of reservations, on this service. You’ll have noticed these are not the usual carriages. We had to borrow a train set because, well, we haven’t got enough.’

The annoyance of the passengers relaxes into smiles and shrugs. He is so frank and in 2017 they still call these train sets.

‘Also there is no WiFi.’ There is some sniggering.

’And I’m afraid the catering is on a restricted menu till York.’ Shaking of heads. But no one is frowning.

He’s directing us to the website to make formal complaints, acknowledging the inconvenience, so we can get some money back. He couldn’t do any more. And we know it works, that compensation is often paid.

The staff are kind, patiently explaining the obvious, directing traffic gently. They call me Madam now. I blame the specs.

The passengers help each other with bags, wait patiently to ‘just squeeze by’ and move seats to let families sit together, averting their eyes tolerantly and giving hard stares when needed.

There’s still something civilised about travelling by long haul train, with all the delays and overcrowding, an awareness among us all that we could fly and get there faster but where’s the sense in that, when there are sun-tipped wheat fields up and down the country waiting for us to slide past and murmurations of birds wheeling against sunsets the length of the carriage.

It’s not about the destination, or at least not all about it, when you’re on the train. It’s on the journey that you have the unexpected insights, meet the hilarious characters, see old problems from a new angle. And just see life, lots of it, going on around you and without you and sometimes through you. It’s all out there, doing it’s own thing. You can get involved or just sit and take it in and sometimes you don’t have much choice but mostly you do. And the amazing, stupendous, impossibly beautiful world whizzing by your ears.

Only Connect. But what if you can’t?

When the super-duper lovely agent I’ve been talking to came back with a no, I took a deep breath and pushed it away. I knew from the first line of the email. ‘Thanks for sending in your revisions…’

After a deep breath, I went back to my phone and read the whole email which was generous and fair. But still a no.

I closed it, turned back to my child and had a lively chat about Halloween. It wasn’t unexpected.  A few weeks had gone by. The lack of enthusiasm was clear. I apologised at tea-time for being tense lately and told the family my book wasn’t accepted.

‘Why don’t you write something else?’ said number two son, ‘something we can read?’

He’s never been keen on a psychological thriller about stalking. With swearing.

‘It’s a good idea,’ I said. ‘Maybe I will.’

‘That’s a shame. Can you fix it?’ said number one, ever optimistic.

‘I’ll try.’ I said.

It hasn’t all been bad news this year. I’ve had some success with short story competitions. The writing I’ve done recently is better than it used to be. Even I can see that.

‘How do you feel?’ said husband.

I explained to him how I was going to rip out the middle and restructure the whole thing, which would allow me to show great parts of the story I hadn’t shown before. I was really looking forward to it.

But two days later, after a long chat with a trusted reader, I’m bawling my eyes out. It feels like a real loss. It’s not just the scale of the task ahead, though having done one major rewrite over the summer, I’m in no doubt it will be HARD. It’s the thought that this book might never get there.

I LOVE my characters. I love their courage  and madness and strength and self-delusion. I love the depths of their despair and the wild solutions they come up with. I just can’t seem to make them come alive, believably, on paper. I don’t want to give up on them. Where will they go? What will they do? I can’t just leave them in the lurch! I’ll miss them. Is that the problem? I can’t round them off and let them go free, out into the world, to be who they are? I question my sanity. I think it’s still there.

On the one hand, I’m maybe gaining stripes as a writer, because so many of my writing heroes have gone through this and maybe I need to, to learn the craft. But in the meantime, years are going by when I could be doing something else useful. There’s no point persevering, if the writing’s just not cutting the mustard. Is it all a waste of time?

Deep down, this feels like a misfire. Or my aim is off. Or I’ve not committed to the act of killing. Writing! The act of writing. Maybe there’s a similar sort of focus required to properly see the target, read the moment, wait for the fatal move.

Maybe I’m not there yet because on some level, I’m not ready. I hope so. Either way, I’m not able to stop.

Helen is still not free

Something's not right here...

‘The whole world knows what you are now Rob.’

‘I still can’t take my eyes off you.’

And there it was; the reality check. I almost breathed a sigh of relief.

The verdicts on the Archers last night were met with great rejoicing by half the country and most of Twitter as the right result. But the truth is, for many women in Helen’s position, this is not the end.

Domestic violence continues to be poorly managed by the justice system to the extent that two women a week are killed by their partners or exes in the UK, all too often with a history of abuse*. The danger is not understood, the escalation of violence missed. It’s a hard crime to recognise even for the victim, hard to explain to friends and family who cannot match the victim’s account with the charming man they know. But it has terrifying results.

The Archers storyline has gripped the nation because it has played out in real time, coming into people’s homes and work places on the radio, Rob’s voice whispering into our ears as he whispered into hers. The drip-feed of toxic incidents  tells its own story. Maybe today, more people have a grasp of what it is to lose your confidence and sense of self because of this kind of bullying. Which is why this was too important an opportunity for the writers to pretend that the end of the trial was Helen’s Happy Ever After. Justice is often elusive for women in her position.

After the too-good-to-be-true verdicts, the final exchange between Helen and Rob brought us back down to earth. Rob is not going away. He’s been convicted of nothing because it wasn’t him on trial. The verdicts won’t slow him down or affect his behaviour in the least. She’ll have to deal with him in the custody battle which will follow now and he’ll try to worm his way back into her life.

It will maybe help Helen, that she’s had a chance to tell her story and has been believed. She’ll have the support of her parents and some of the wider community. But as the jury deliberations showed, she hasn’t been believed by everyone.

Which makes me think that the writers are setting us up for trial no.2. It could be either of them on trial. This storyline has the potential to run and run. If it continues to mimic real life, it could last for years.

I wonder which of them will be alive by the end. But I already think I know the answer.

*Office for National Statistics, Home Office

To the other woman crying in the car park this morning

I don’t know your name and I don’t suppose you know mine but we know each other through passing smiles of recognition on the way in and out of school, towing small reluctant cargo, grasping little hands tightly only to let them go for the day. I see your struggles when the reluctance boils over, your firm cheerfulness in the face of small fears, your soothing cuddles when it’s all too much.

I see the effort that it takes to hide your own fears, to master your own desire to run, screaming, back through the playground, to stay positive when there is  wailing and gnashing of teeth.

I see your hair growing drier, though the grey is dyed neatly away, and the glow fading from your skin, as the years pass, making us all older, the small ones taller. I see  you slick on the lipstick, before you get out of the car, and pull on a smile for each friend you meet.

I see the conversation in the playground when someone has a weird bug, or a discipline issue or a bullying friend. I see you take the time to chat, to share and take the weight.

And I see you on the days when it is just too much. The days when you cannot raise your head to meet the smile, cannot stop to chat, can only plough on to the door and back to the car because that is all the energy you have left.

I think today was one of those days for you, as it was for me and that is why I’m glad you’re here, because we are not alone, even as we sit alone here in our cars, behind our rainy windscreens. In a while, we will wipe our faces and drive on,  and never speak of it, knowing that today was one of those days for someone else and they were there to share it.


This week I went to the funeral of a friend in the seaside town where she grew up, a town of long wide streets and a long wide beach where the salt spray carries on the wind and the cafe owners turn around a fast flat white.

She rode her bike up and down these streets and it’s easy to see her doing it again. Because now she is freed from time and age.

It was breast cancer, which came back. She was in the thick of an action-packed life, and did not reduce the pace of it till near the end. She railed at her cancer and fought back with furious living. It seemed at the time as if she was in denial, as if she believed there was still a chance to change the diagnosis.

While sympathising with her pain, part of me was challenged by her anger. Why me? is not far from Why not you? In the lottery of life, cancer is a huge, terrifying probability. We’re all afraid of it and its apparent randomness is the most unfair aspect of it. It could be any one of us. I know several women my age (early forties) who are living with it, at various stages. As mothers we are experts in evaluating and avoiding risks but this is beyond our remit, a poison that curdles the illusion of safety. It scares the s*** out of me.

The Internet is quite effective at screening us from the fragility of life; as we tweet and Instagram moments of our lives, they seem to take on an eternal quality, out there in the ether, as if they can never be changed, will always be replenished. There’s a great generous vigour to it all and even the trolls are passionate. Perhaps that’s why the deaths of our heroes resonate so far, so fast, so deeply. We belong to each other, in a way that perhaps only families have in the past. But we are not immortal. Even the strong die, even the great and the young and the beloved.

At the beautiful funeral service, in an ancient church, the minister told us the story of her life. It was a good life, lived well and it struck me how much she’d packed in, the energy she’d brought to her job and her hobbies, her faith in herself, her love of justice. She didn’t let anyone stand in her way if she thought they were wrong. In fact she could be a pain in the ass sometimes but she got away with it because she was hilariously funny.

And the church was packed. Her ranting and sharing to audiences large and small had won her so many friends for her astonishing determination to live. That was not a side-effect of the cancer. That was who she’d always been.

I see now that she was never in denial. She knew her enemy and looked it in the eye. Cancer was an intruder into her life; she knew it would kill her and was absolutely livid about it.

To those she left behind, she’ll be a voice on our shoulders, making sardonic remarks, screeching with laughter, telling us off for ducking the hard stuff.

Because there is no time to waste. And fear will only slow us down.

Lateness: the cardinal sin of modern life

And there are many of us scramblers and jugglers. I know because I’ve seen the whites of their eyes as we scan for one last Mother’s Day card.



All my life I’ve been late. Since I came into the world overdue, I’ve been sliding in at the back, crafting explanations, regularly, slightly, late. I know, it is unacceptable behaviour. But hear me out.

My goal is to arrive on time, not too early or too late, which requires the  day to go as smoothly as the plan in my head. Sometimes this happens which must be why I keep attempting it. But often it doesn’t. Traffic lights are against me, people ask for help, children rebel. Life gets in the way. But that’s where the kick comes in because battling through the obstacles and beating the clock makes me feel great, as though I can take what life throws at me and still coming out winning, even if I’m in second place a fair bit of the time. The majority are against me on this, the moral compass has swung past me and my attempts to cram extra stuff into life are considered a bit, well, old-school.

It is no longer possible to buy pumpkins on Hallowe’en. Gone, all those orange heaps that were there a week before the big day. Or Valentines cards on Valentines Day. It’s quite pleasant to shop on Christmas Eve because the rush now happens the day before that. I love planning ahead as much as the next person, (over ambitious about everything, not just time) but if you can’t buy things on the actual day, where is the fun in that? And there are many of us, scramblers and jugglers. I know because I’ve seen the whites of their eyes as we hover over the greeting cards scanning for one last Mother’s Day card. The flip side of the panic is the creative cobbling-together which follows. One year I bought a selection of curiously shaped butternut squash for Halloween lanterns which worked surprisingly well, their narrow heads and bulbous bellies charming the kids and amusing the adults who thought I was being ironic. See, See? The kick! Spontaneity is its own reward.

Plain old lateness, not so much. I shoot myself in the foot and do not impress people. A dear friend recently took me to task for making her wait 45 minutes in a bar. In my defence, this was a highly unusual occurrence. I’d hosted a party for 26 six-year olds in the afternoon, and mismanaged my time. But obviously I was deeply ashamed as I’d made her feel less than valued which is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous. She’s been late for me of course, it happens to us all. But I’m the regular offender. She’s been allowing an extra 15 minutes after the time we agreed to meet before turning up herself, a system which has worked well for years. I never mind waiting on her if I’m on time, or on anyone really, it’s like the universe has given me a time bonus. But I realise this is not a truth universally acknowledged. I know it’s wrong to waste other people’s time and am not defending tardiness. My point is more that a bit of come and go makes life easier and allowing ourselves to be governed so much by the clock makes no sense, when we are all still human.

For example. Yesterday I arrived at the GP and checked in for my appointment to be met with a large red cross and the words TOO LATE. I glanced at the clock on my phone. It was six minutes after the appointment time. Not fifteen minutes, which is the point at which hairdressers and dentists cancel appointments, having obviously got together at a conference and decided that fifteen minutes should be the cut off point. Six.

This in an establishment which is set up to deal with people who are ill. The mums, derailed by unplanned pooing, sicking and tantrumming, the depressed and infirm, who have struggled to get out of the door, bipolar and schizophrenic people trying to stay in the present and control the hallucinations long enough to explain them. And what do they get met by? A computer telling them they have failed to meet the standard required.

Fortunately there are still people behind the reception desk who are able to forgive this shortcoming, after a bit of eyerolling. But seriously? Six minutes?

The appointments system has become the standard way of running a service-based business, from restaurants to shoe shops, to save us all waiting in queues for hours on end. But surely there is room for some flexibility? There are many people who regularly turn up a whole fifteen minutes early for things,which used to be rude, and are slotted in early. Why not extend the courtesy to the late, who can be slotted in when the next space becomes free? So long as everyone is seen in a reasonable time, what need have we of cancellations and judgements?  Unless of course, it is quite fun to exert the small power we have, to belittle others.

It’s worth remembering that the latecomers are sometimes needy or vulnerable, juggling demands and all too aware of their short-comings. They’re not late on purpose. Often they are trying their best. And what does the crime of lateness actually amount to? It slows the rest of us down a bit. As do long coffee queues, garrulous bosses, hungover colleagues, missed deadlines. We still have to be at work till the end of the day. Each of us messes up in some way. And in a world full of imperfect people being lazy, well-intentioned and broken-hearted under the surface, we should cut each other some slack.






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