Separation Anxiety

Recently I’ve been waking up in the night, heart pounding, mouth dry, with a searing flash of worry in my brain.

My first thought is that I’ve misplaced something important, forgotten something vital. It’s that ‘I’ve left the baby on the bus’ feeling.

It takes me only a few seconds to realise that both my babies grew up long ago. Then I remember, thankfully, that they’re fine – they’re old enough to look after themselves and, mercifully, they’re safe.

Finally the problem dawns on me. I’m a writer. The baby I think I’ve left on the bus is one I’ve created. Not real, not flesh and blood. He’s fictitious. But somehow that fact doesn’t make me feel any better.

I’ve had this feeling before.

When my newest book was a manuscript, waiting on my editor’s desk to have its fate decided, I spent night after night waking up in a cold sweat.

It’s not that the novel feels like my baby (I wouldn’t usually feel this anxious about a new book). No, it’s because I’ve been writing about Tomos, the main character, for almost 14 years now. He’s been my pet project – tucked away in a file on my laptop and scribblings in notebooks – and he’s seen me out of my forties and into my fifties, while I get on with my other, more cheerful writing.

My real-life children have grown up in that time. Tomos has not. He’s still five. He’s still scared, hungry and alone.

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And now my novel’s been published. It’s out of the safety of my laptop and in the hands of other people. Some of them will be people I know, but most of them will be people I’ve never met.

And that’s the whole point of writing and publishing a book. As authors, we want our books to be read by as many people as possible. But Tomos, he’s five. He’s like my child. And I’ve just abandoned him.

If you can remember the first time you left your child at nursery, or the first time they walked through the gates of that huge comp, or when you drove off and left them at their college hall of res, you’ll understand how I’m feeling.

Tomos. He’s out there. He’s at the mercy of others. I can’t tell him it’ll be OK anymore.

I want to pull him back. I want to hold him to me and never let him go.

But it’s too late. He’s off into the big wide world and there’s no reversing that.

All I can do is ask – if you find Tomos, scared and alone, somewhere out there on your travels, please take care of him for me.

 

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Thank you,

Sara x

P.S. I wrote this after very little sleep and a large glass of wine – I think it shows! Not feeling quite so worried about my little boy now that I’ve had lovely feedback from some wonderful people who, it turns out, care about Tomos almost as much as I do.  

Sara’s debut novel for adults ‘Not Thomas’ is published by Honno Press in paperback and on Kindle and is available to pre-order now at £8.99 on Amazon.

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The view from behind the chair

pexels-photo (1)Children hide behind chairs for all sorts of reasons. Some fun, some not fun at all. When I was setting up my website a couple of months ago, I needed a title for it. Like my Sara Gethin pen name which had been sitting at the back of my mind for years, I had a name in reserve for the blog. It was a name that connected to the five-year-old child in my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, and his habit of hiding behind a big black chair whenever things at home got scary, or when someone unexpectedly knocked on the door. It was ‘The View from behind the Chair’.

I can relate to Tomos’s habit of curling up small behind the big chair. Don’t get me wrong, my childhood was happy and nothing at all like Tomos’s, but at around his age I did spend quite a lot of time behind a chair. I was hiding too – hiding from people who made fun of me.

Well, they didn’t make fun of me  exactly, just the fact that I was still attached to my old bottle at four years old. A baby’s bottle that was never filled. I loved it, that empty plastic bottle. We were inseparable. It was like the dummy I’d never had.

There was once a photo of me with it in my mouth, taken by accident. I was standing at the back of a large family group, peeping through the adults’ legs. And there it was – Bottle – hanging like an oversized cigarette from the corner of my lip. No one realised I had popped it in my mouth.

But when the photos eventually came back from the chemist (it was that long ago) oh, the shame! I still remember it. Here was hard evidence of my odd habit. It was burned in the fireplace – the photo that is, not the bottle (Bottle survived to suffer a different fate at a later date) and he and I ran off once more to our hiding place behind the big chair.

Despite the problems he caused me, Bottle also made me think on my feet. One day, a neighbour came to our open back door while I was playing in the kitchen with my older brother and sister. My bottle, as usual, was firmly clamped between my teeth. As I looked in horror at our ‘Aunty’ Lois standing on the doorstep, I silently and with an ashen-faced whipped the bottle from my mouth and dropped it behind my back into the laundry basket my mother was carrying on her way to our top-loader washing machine.

My family thought it was hilarious, especially as I’d stood there staring at the woman for a good five seconds with the bottle still in my mouth before I’d surreptitiously (or so I’d thought) disposed of it. They were still recounting the story years later. It caused me quite a lot of confusion as a child. I was so proud that I’d done something my family thought very, very funny, but I was also ashamed because Bottle was a part of the story. And I was ashamed of Bottle.

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Of course, I would never have felt Bottle was shameful if other people hadn’t made me feel that way. While my immediate family mostly ignored my habit, I was teased mercilessly by my many uncles whenever they visited, which was often. I spent hours behind that chair in our lounge, waiting for them to go home so Bottle and I could come out.

I can vividly recall the texture of the fabric on the chair’s back, the raised pattern beneath my fingers, the smell of the cloth, and yes, the view, half obscured by the arm of the chair. A section of the TV screen, a glimpse of a programme I’d been looking forward to seeing. And all the time listening for my name to be mentioned, along with a teasing – ‘What have you got behind there? Come out and show us’.

That’s absolutely nowhere near as bad as the problems some people endured in childhood, I know. And it’s nothing like what poor Tomos has to put up with in my novel. But remembering how I felt as a young child back then certainly helped me put myself in Tomos’s place – small and uncomfortable.

My ‘problem’ was easily resolved in the end. Bottle broke. I’d tried to take good care of him, but he was four years old. That’s ancient for a bottle. So he ended up in the dustbin and I cried and cried. But eventually I got over him. Life without him was easier. And there was no reason to hide behind the chair anymore.

Sadly, that’s Tomos’s place now.

And the blog ended up being called ‘Not Me’, like ‘Not Thomas’, because I’m not Sara, I’m Wendy really. What do you reckon, should I have gone for ‘The View from behind the Chair’ instead?

All other views considered.

The child at the window – images, ideas and imagination

pexels-photoThere are some images that stay with us. Those that are dark and frightening may haunt us for a lifetime; others sit quietly in our subconscious and float to the surface now and then. One image I’ve carried with me for years is that of a child at a window, and it became a recurring theme in my writing.

People often ask where ideas for stories come from, and it’s something that puzzled me too, until I actually set aside time to write. I was forever thinking up ideas for what might be an interesting basis for a story while I was chopping vegetables or driving around. I’d have a vision of what a story could look like and then, by the time I’d finished preparing dinner or parked the car, I’d promptly forget the whole thing.

Eventually, after starting a writing course, I began to keep a notebook for these germs of creativity. It was the first piece of advice my writing tutor offered. And I slowly trained myself to retain the ideas until I could write them down. At last I managed to corral my sparks of inspiration into a form I could use. Then I found there was inspiration everywhere – on television and in newspapers, in conversations overheard in cafes or on the train. And, of course, in real day-to-day life.

I used to work as a primary school teacher and people sometimes ask if the central character in ‘Not Thomas’ is based on a child I taught. In fact, he’s not based on any one child – he’s a mixture of many disadvantaged children I’ve known from the schools I taught at. Some of these children were already being monitored by social services, while others were on the verge of being referred.

‘At risk’ children tend to stick in your mind. There was the girl left alone every evening while her mother went out with a new boyfriend; the many children who came to school hungry, having not eaten a proper meal since their last school dinner. And the young boy that kept watch from the window to see when other children were setting out for school. His mother never got up early enough to see him off and he couldn’t tell the time, so that was the only way he had of knowing when to leave. He spent a long time looking out of that window.

There can’t be many teachers who haven’t known at least one child like these. Most schools have quite a few. Sometimes they’re the ones that slip through the net, the ones whose lives are difficult but who somehow struggle on. Often the best a teacher can do is make sure social services know about their concerns, and then keep a careful eye on the child.

Tomos, the boy in my novel, spends hours at the window. He’s watching for his neighbour to stop at the gate and walk him to school. And he waits at the window for his mother to come home too. Even though he has visits from a social worker, he’s still suffering from neglect. His supply teacher – he calls her simply ‘Miss’ – knows he’s not being properly looked after and she’s raised her concerns with the school’s head. She’s done what teachers everywhere do, and she’s keeping a close eye on him. She’s not based on any particular teacher I taught with, although there were plenty like her – genuinely concerned people who were always striving to do their best.

But there’s more than concern driving Miss’s actions. She has a shared history with Tomos, and her own reasons for bringing sandwiches and clean clothes to school for him. And it means she’s prepared to do much more than any right-minded teacher would.

She, of course, is a fictional teacher, caring for a fictional child. Over the years I spent writing about them, Tomos and Miss became very real to me. Even so, they’re still simply the products of my imagination. But that image – the one of the child looking out of the window – that’s reality. It’s an image recreated over and over by the many, many children waiting patiently to go to school, or watching all alone for someone to come home.

Those children are completely real.

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