I missed the deadline for the Bridport Prize this week. I’ve been known to hurtle up to a fiction deadline with screeching noises and the smell of burning rubber, but until now, I’d always got them in on time.
I let it happen. It’s been an odd week. It started when I wrote an application for a new career position that would support my family and provide for my pension, but which entailed the kind of boring maintenance work that people only take when they’ve run out of vision or excitement. I got as far as picking up the envelope before I realised that I’m nowhere near ready for a long, slow slide towards death.
I crumpled up the application, tossed it onto the fire, went for a run, got a tattoo, drank a bottle of Lacryma Christi (thank you, Vesuvius), and binge-watched Fleabag (Series 1, first time) till 4am. Finally, up to the eyeballs in latte and ibuprofen, I hurled myself into the surf, only stopping when my legs gave out.
That might have been it – a momentary, therapeutic outburst in an otherwise consistently professional, responsible, motherly life – if another conversation hadn’t happened.
I’d been to the doctor with a lump on my arm. ‘It’s not cancerous,’ he said, but the next day he called back, ‘I’ve been thinking and I’d like you to come back and see my colleague, could you come in tomorrow?’
‘Should I be frightened?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. But we both heard it.
After the last few years, the prospect of being ill myself is not the worst I’ve faced, and the feeling in my stomach wasn’t so much fear as bone-deep exhaustion. A kind of existential sobbing from being utterly tired of being cut up and patched up, waiting in queues, listening to beeps and watching syringes empty. Trying not to be so very aware of the eyes avoiding mine.
I spent the night watching Fleabag Series 2, sailing vicariously through someone else’s irresponsible, sexy, drunken, smoky, ridiculous, brilliant, disgusting, vibrant, hilarious, fictitious life, then dragged myself back to the surgery where two smiling professionals met my gaze and told me that I did not have cancer.
‘Keep an eye on the lump,’ they said.
I pictured myself sitting at a desk, proofreading maintenance work with occasional breaks to stare at an arm lump. You can do that kind of thing for twenty years: people do.
I went home, tore the lump out of my arm, and worked out for two hours. Then, aware of the Bridport deadline, I fed and settled my children, cleaned my house from top to bottom, parked myself in a gleaming armchair by a polished oak desk, wrapped in a fluffy, scented blanket, and did something that I almost never do.
I just sat.
Later, I made some decisions.
Normal service, where I volunteer and help and look after everyone and then smile politely while everyone else gets paid and pensioned and I’m left standing with the tidying up and no time to expand my career or write my novel (or even read one), will not resume.
Instead, if anyone wants to play, I’ll be entering the Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition. Join me?
If I’m going to work
— which I am —
then it must be full of passion, enthusiasm, and life.
Nothing else will do.
My mid-life crisis is over, and today feels bright and exciting, so I’m off now to write.
Before I go, best of luck to those who entered Bridport – it’s a fabulous competition. I look forward to reading the winners.