Wait for It

This Week’s Bit of String: Heartbeats down the hall

“Just wait here while I check something.” It’s not what we like to hear at a doctor’s appointment, but I had bigger worries. Twenty years old, 7.5 months pregnant and still chronically nauseous, single and forced to drop out of college, desperately missing my ex-boyfriend and working 45-50 hours per week on my feet in 80-90 degree heat, I now had a fever and was just tired.

The doctor disappeared from the little exam room into the indecipherable warren of the obstetrics unit. If I refused to wait, I’d never find my way out, but at least it was air conditioned. I rested my elbow on a table of magazines and closed my eyes while my son did chinups on my ribs.

Somewhere in the labyrinth another expectant mum listened to her baby’s heartbeat. I could hear the Doppler machine through the walls, a steady rhythm behind my exhaustion.

Worth the wait, then the unending watch

And a woman’s voice, maybe the mother, maybe a companion, maybe a hallucination. Her chatter flowed high and melodious. She broke off to laugh, and in other moments broke into song: “On My Own” from Les Miserables. A languid, lonely line or two then more cheery talk, while the baby’s heart sounded.

When I first found out I was pregnant and got dumped (we married way later though, so don’t worry) I often wondered how I’d make it through months of this uncertainty before holding my baby. Waiting is hard, especially when everything else is a mess. The waiting and the uncertainty are huge emotional drains during the pandemic, don’t you think? We don’t know when we’ll be reunited with distant loved ones, we don’t know whether the economy will sustain itself, or indeed whether pasta will be available at the next grocery trip.

In this environment, we wait for my son’s A-Level grades. Until next Thursday, we won’t know what university he can go to, or where he’ll live, or how long he’ll need to stay there. It feels like a high stakes waiting game but I’ve gotten better at this.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writers do a lot of waiting. We wait for feedback from beta readers, for competition results, acceptance from agents, publishers, literary magazines, we wait for reviews and we wait for regard. The competitions we enter in May may not give us results till October.

The other thing we wait for is availability. Time spent on the day job or on housework or even socially can feel like waiting, biding our time till we can be alone with our ideas and mould them into art. Certain distractions can be helpful, and at other times they make us resentful. I’m worst at this kind of waiting, the when-will-it-be-five-o’clock-so-I-can-finally-write-down-the-flash-piece-I-invented-during-my-lunch-hour-hike kind. Is producing thousands of pounds worth of energy bills really more important that delving into the imagined world of Jemima Deadly, Chef to the Celebrities, and her Biscuits of Doom? (One of my current short stories in progress.)

Blooming through the cracks

Leading this double life helps us cope with waiting, though. By learning to pause the flow of words so we can crunch numbers or strike up dinner conversation, we know how to compartmentalise. We send a story off somewhere, padlock the mental exam room where we birthed it, and wander through the warren in our brain to a different one.

From a chamber deep in our minds is a steady pulse: Must write. Must be heard. And with it surreal strands of song and laughter like a siren’s call. While we wait, we work on new projects. As the longlist and shortlist announcements approach, we enter that original cubicle and rifle through it: what will we change if it’s rejected? Where will we submit next? How will we promote it if it’s actually successful? I ration myself a few minutes of daydreams per day, then dash away from them on a torrent of Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds.

Passing the Time

Waiting is not a passive act. It’s a discipline. The origins of the word come from the terms for being awake, for keeping watch, and even earlier than that, from pre-English for “to be strong, lively.” In addition to stocking up on alternative submission possibilities and indulging in the occasional success fantasy, how do we maintain our strength during the rigorous wait?

Release your inner magpie: Go out and gather string, writers. Chase shiny things. Diversions are better than anxiety. Your story’s out of your hands for the moment, so relish the opportunity to invent a new one.

Street art, Southville, Bristol

Be practical: Plan where to submit next. I don’t like this part of being a writer, because seeking opportunities robs from the limited time I have for creating. It feels like that bad kind of waiting. But it is important, and when it’s done there’s the hope of new chances.

Stock up on positives: When you have doubts, send your work to friends, read it at a writers group, share a line in one of Twitter’s writing hashtags. It’s not the same as getting a contract or a prize, but encouragement always helps.

Remember others are waiting too: Everyone’s got something they’re keeping watch for. Support other writers and creatives so the wait doesn’t feel so long for them.

Poke your head up: Use the time to catch up on other aspects of life. We don’t want to find we were waiting for the wrong thing. I remember so little about when my son was a baby, I was so lost longing for his father.

I’m glad my son has had to practice waiting. Most 18-year-olds don’t go half a year without structure and yet manage to remain pleasantly functioning. He’s made new music, learned Italian, baked bread, set a record for speed running Lego Star Wars on ds, been an all-around best bud while I’m working from home. Whatever university he gets into, he’s ready to throw himself into it, with the knowledge that if there aren’t immediate results he can persevere.

It will be worth it. He was. And just as I survived that little fever and the long wait for his birth, and the wait to be a family, and the very busy wait to see what he’d be like as he grew, I guess I can survive the wait to see him at the end of his university term. With parenting, as with writing, when one wait ends another begins. But I think, after all we’ve been through, that one of the lyrics I overheard in the obstetrics waiting room is true: “Without me, his world will go on turning,” and this time that’s a good thing.

Choosing a Bubble

This Week’s Piece of String: Adolescents in a Hospital Ward, 1993

What’s the most diverse group of people you’ve ever been part of? Not just racially or politically, but in terms of experience and beliefs. For me it was hospitalisation when I was 12, in a unit later shut down after a surprise inspection. It wasn’t a nice place, but I quickly learned to like the people I was with.

We were aged 12 to 17, representing all colours, with heritage from Puerto Rico, Greece, and Jamaica. There were teens left there by the state for over a year. Runaways brought in from the street, kids stopping off on their way to longer detention, and private school students whose rich parents didn’t know how to handle them.

One boy, a few months younger than I was, had stolen a gun from Walmart. One girl’s entire family were in detox. There was a virulently anti-racist boy who suffered from muscular dystrophy, a junior KKK member, and a powerful African-American girl who didn’t hesitate to enlighten him. My roommate loved vinegar, Aerosmith, and her little foster brother who had spina bifida.

This puzzle fit together especially well thanks to its oddly shaped pieces…Must get my cheesiest metaphors out of the way before actually writing the next book.

We kept count of the times we heard The Bodyguard soundtrack on the radio (“Run to You:” 9 times in 2 weeks), and lived for the pizza bagels we were given on Friday nights. We were united against tyrannical psychiatrists and shared affection for the handful of kindlier workers. We jostled for shaving slots, during the one daily hour when we could access “sharps.” Through major personal crises, we cared for each other, and accepted our quirks.

In the midst of a new global crisis, as the government allows us to form “bubbles” of safety, I fear this will result in further entrenching us in homogenous opinions. Every book or TV series I love (and that seem to particularly resonate with readers and audiences) has a motley, diverse cast who beat the odds to save the day. And that’s how my next writing project will be, even if real life isn’t turning out that way.

Weirdos Assemble!

From The Baby-Sitters Club to last year’s joint Booker Prize winner Girl, Woman, Other, from Star Trek to The Good Place, our hallmarks of fiction showcase diversity. There’s always room to include more ethnicities and sexualities, but it’s also important to celebrate different personalities.

I love how Brooklyn 99 features not just multiple people of colour, but also two characters who are particularly emotionally guarded. Guardians of the Galaxy could be a descendant of Catch-22, in which a group of people with various bizarre passions and tendencies are thrown together to fight a common enemy. Isn’t every iconic friendship a pairing of opposites, an appreciation of certain foibles the rest of the world has rejected?

Scout, Jem, Dill and Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Scoobies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Huckleberry Finn and his travel buddy Jim, the alliances Oskar builds in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Owen Meany and… you know, his best mate who tells his story.

My actual world.

You’ve probably got some favourite examples, too. As the pandemic shrinks our spheres of existence, makes every day similar to the next, and seems to embitter divisions, contemplating variance is refreshing. Have you found that?

Even now that activities are opening up, I still feel trapped in a waiting game. Wondering when I can see all my family in America. Waiting for results from competitions I’ve entered stories in, and still over a month from A-Levels Results Day, when our son finds out his grades and can then know which university he’s able to go to. In the COVID era, this also means that until his results come, we won’t know whether he’ll be able to visit home during university termtime or whether he’ll have to stay there in an allotted “bubble” of people on his course. So after emigrating from my whole family, I might now have to say goodbye to my child, my best buddy, for months on end… Yes, it’s high time to retreat into fiction and plan the next writing project.

World-Building

Starting a new novel is like designing your own plague-bubble. You’re not considering who to allow in the club, but who’s needed for the mission. I’m preparing to bring characters on board, I’m designing a set for them, and I’m coming up with plot points that ideally I’d like them to hit, but whatever, I trust their judgement.

Inspired partly by a hike past this unfinished mansion, which seemed to have a couple of young squatters…

It’s going to be somewhat apocalyptic; it’s more cathartic to imagine a better way through them than to imagine they don’t exist. Here’s my wishlist, because as writers we get to Write the Book We Want to See in the World:

  • A gothic-style setting, probably an abandoned manor house
  • A hint of the supernatural, because my last novel was about Eve and once you get to incorporate dragons and talking animals, there’s no going back.
  • Six main characters thrown together surprisingly, from very different walks of life
    • The enigmatic older caretakers of the estate
    • A spoiled but charming heir
    • His girlfriend, an immigrant who’s sacrificed parts of herself to assimilate
    • A recovering alcoholic who’d been homeless for months
    • A runaway nurse who just can’t take the front lines anymore
  • Certain personality traits to share around:
    • Someone obsessed with jigsaw puzzles, because that is one of my favourite Lockdown activities and why not use it?
    • Someone tuned in to religious iconography and symbols, you know, to heighten the drama
    • An element of uncertainty as to who’s REALLY in charge here. Which ones are the manipulators, which are the manipulated? Could they possibly, in some way, all be equally obligated to and fearful of each other? Does that mean they all need each other equally?
  • Art or music or poetry or exotic plants… the estate is bound to have some unique collections which could become significant. I’ll research obscure artefacts and see what I like.

What kind of reading and writing makes you feel better about the world? May your bubbles be safe but exciting, your books and your life studded with colourful characters.

Finding the Happy Ending

This Week’s Bit of String: Half a Donut

I used to work in a nursing home. One day we walked into the staffroom for a quick morning break and found a box of donuts on the table. “It’s Carers Appreciation Day!” said a note taped to it. “Feel free to cut yourself half a donut as a reward for your hard work.”

We were underwhelmed. The large, privately-owned home was always trying to save costs, cutting down on PPE and hiring only minimal staff. They saw no problem with providing just two carers to wash, toilet, dress, and feed eighteen residents at a time. We often had to leapfrog toilets: hoist one resident out of bed, leave them half-dressed alone on the commode with their call-button, run to the next room, repeat, return to the first resident leaving the second alone… The owner flitted about in his personal helicopter while we didn’t have the luxury of shutting ourself in one room with one person to properly clean and dress them.

But we got half a donut, once a year.

This was ten years ago. As we clap for frontline workers, I’m mindful of how difficult their jobs were before COVID-19 appeared. We need to make more noise than just applause to ensure conditions for some of our most valiant workers and their vulnerable clients improve.

Assessing the Wreckage

I worked in the nursing home after a few months’ employment at the Lidl supermarket chain, and before being a teaching assistant. All these are now frontline jobs, and they were overloaded already. Before, no one noticed. People don’t like to dwell on what becomes of the elderly once they’re tucked away in a “home,” and people don’t want to consider how some shops manage to sell a pack of chicken for three quid. It’s mainly working classes and immigrants in those roles, so who cares? Now, we have to think about it, because when other people aren’t looked after, they can unwittingly pass illness to our loved ones or ourselves.

Rainbows, rainbows everywhere, nor any pot of gold

These are the kinds of jobs my characters have, their energy replaced by a frenzied faith in their labour. In my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds, which I’ve been reading out on YouTube, the action starts straight away. Frustration overcomes supermarket worker Charlie, causing him to do something a bit reckless.

This starts the plot, but the conditions provoking it already existed. A crisis isn’t isolated. It’s a culmination, and sometimes a necessary catalyst to put things right. We’ve got to boldly scrutinise this disease not just to stop the pandemic, but to learn about neglected parts of society. Have we been so busy ensuring we can afford lots of holidays and home improvements, we’ve created nations too cripplingly basic to cope with an emergency?

Be Alert

Apparently this is the British government’s new mantra. It’s not entirely clear, but I guess they want us to listen for people coughing, mind our own temperatures, and possibly notify the authorities of any neighbours who allow a loved one inside their house. (Don’t worry if the house is For Sale, though, because then it’s fine to have people poking around!)

We should really be alert for governments downplaying the suffering of key workers and vulnerable groups.

“To Be Normal is Not a Healthy Aspiration” from an exhibit at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol 2019
  • Watch for wordplay: Boris Johnson said there won’t be a return to austerity following this economic downturn. But austerity is just a word. If pay is frozen for the public sector—including healthcare workers who have worked so hard—and budgets are slashed even further for counties and schools, that’s the same thing. Force him to pull the money from somewhere else. Back taxes, maybe? Has everyone forgotten the Panama Papers? (In America, watch out for healthcare premiums going way up next year, and states having to cut budgets dramatically.)
  • Make a list, check it twice: Who can you think of that might be disproportionately affected by this crisis? I made a hit list before we went into lockdown of who would need checking up on. Keep Googling for what’s going on for the homeless, for refugee camps, for Native American tribes. Check that someone’s reporting on it, share widely.
  • Vote. For the love of this planet and every being on it, especially with our American elections coming up. There are people who will make this hard for you. Start planning now; assume there will still be a rampant virus and get your hands on a mail-in ballot. For downballot positions where there may be progressive candidates available, vote for people who will raise minimum wage, ensure paid sick leave, and genuinely fight for affordable healthcare availability.
  • Pester. Where the elections have already happened, or where a party’s establishment has put forth a compromise candidate who’s simply promoting a return to normal, vote for the least of any evils and then make noise. Call, Tweet, agitate. Remind the world and especially politicians and business owners that “normal” was just an annual half-donut for a lot of people!

Happily Ever After

As I promised when I started reading The Wrong Ten Seconds to viewers, it will have a happy ending. It’s a realistic contemporary book, so the tough lives the characters already had aren’t going to magically change. But the crises in the book force them to face problems more honestly and with new, unexpected alliances.

That’s the best we can hope for. In real life, nothing just ends. Any awareness we manage to raise, we have to ensure it remains in focus. So let’s delve into the conditions that made this virus so dangerous when it came along, and let’s come together—from two metres apart of course—to put them right.

The Other Virus

This Week’s Bit of String: School Uniform on Good Friday

On Good Friday we set out early for our daily exercise, before it got hot. It was quiet, apart from two figures on the pavement ahead. A girl, maybe six years old, skipped and stumbled in her pleated grey skirt, and a young mum all in black carried her schoolbag. They were walking away from the local primary school.

How could they not know the Easter holidays were starting? Had they just rocked up for the day after not bothering for a little while, as if school were a drop-in daycare?

Lately, I have a spreading case of Hey-what-are-they-up-to-itis. Where’s that van driver going to dump all that garden waste, while the tip is closed? Do those people gathered in the park actually live together? I don’t think I’m the only one catching this illness. Plenty of people have been crippled by it most of their lives. But I don’t want my sense of other people’s humanity reduced to a behavioural rubric, so I’m looking at what’s caused this other virus to take hold.

Community

Bitter suspicion may be an unfortunate by-product of the talk about sacrifice and community spirit. We’re told to give up even family visits to protect the NHS. Despite rainbows in many windows, despite clapping for frontline employees, human nature doesn’t allow sacrifice without expecting something in it for ourselves.

Best advice I’ve seen in a while…

It’s like when people interrogate benefits recipients or homeless people on what they’re doing with money put toward their survival. That always bothered me. If I donate a minute fraction of my wealth to someone, I don’t feel entitled to a complete accounting of their lifestyle choices. But now, while we deprive ourselves of pubs, beaches, and simply buying supplies to spruce up the garden, we worry that others are not made of the same fortitude and we expect RESULTS, dammit.

(It’s easier to take out lack of results on random people in the street than to hold wily governments accountable by, say, voting out politicians that neglect incredibly well-loved health systems.)

Control

At the supermarket last week, I got in trouble for entering the store. It was an hour before closing, the car park was virtually empty, but apparently I was supposed to wait until I saw someone exit before I could enter. The woman on duty huffily locked the doors after me. “If people can’t follow the rules, we’ll just have to let them in when we know it’s safe.”

Totally under control. Rock dinosaurs on Selsley Common

I easily did my weekly shop without brushing up against many other customers. At the till, the same worker got chatty when I asked how she was finding the situation. She told me the manager’s wife was an ICU nurse and had just been sent home with a fever and cough, so the manager had rushed away into quarantine as well.

How long before the rest of the staff show symptoms? No wonder she and her co-workers might enforce excessive restrictions. So much else was out of their control. The lack of control can effect the rest of us in a similar way, causing us to exert pressure on others even when there’s not a clear risk to us.

Confidence

The final reason why we might be thinking negatively about other people is our personal insecurity at the moment. Isolation deprives many of a major boost: employment. It also deprives us all of various little boosts that brighten our days. Friendly smiles, compliments, opportunities to show off or be caught at doing good.

For me, this particularly affects my writing. When people say they’re “using all this spare time to write a novel,” I despair I’ll never get mine looked at when agents open for submissions again with slush piles the size of supermarket queues. I find myself thinking unkindly toward people I’d normally encourage.

In Paulo Coelho’s novel Veronika Must Die, a psychiatrist theorises that Vitriol, or Bitterness, is behind many forms of “madness.” It always exists in each person, but “attacks when a person is debilitated…The right conditions for the disease occur when the person becomes afraid of so-called reality.”

Our reality is pretty scary right now, so we need to stop Vitriol spreading. The best cure is surely empathy, which often emerges as a theme in my writing. For example, my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds follows Charlie, a supermarket worker caught on viral video in a desperate act, and the impact on his daughter, a care home nurse, as well as the girl who made the video. Starting next week, I’ll be reading this in video installments. Watch this space!

In the meantime, how’s everyone holding up? Any symptoms of bitterness, or is that just me?