I have a novel coming out this week, and it’s the first one my mum didn’t live long enough to read. She had cancer that started in her mouth, and made life very tough in her final years. I remember when my last novel, In Falling Snow, was in production in 2012, I didn’t think she’d live to see it launched. I got the publisher to send her the page-proofs and asked her to read them and look for errors. This was subterfuge. I didn’t want to say you’ll be dead before it’s published.
This new novel, Swimming Home, is about a young swimmer who has a difficult relationship with mothers. I had a difficult relationship with my mum. Like many of my friends with their mothers, I often felt I’d disappointed her, that she preferred my brothers. And perhaps she did. I’m sure they were less complicated than me. In my thirties, I came to see not only that Mum did the best she could, but also that she was the perfect mother for me. As a teenager at an all-girls’ school I was in constant trouble. But she never tried to make me be any different from who I was. She let me be. She also made sure I was taught to swim, even though she herself was never taught.
As I grew older and pushed my mother away—to my great shame—blaming her for I don’t even know what, she was always there when I went back. She was a gentle soul, I think now, a person life might not have been fair to. She’d been a journalist before she had children, and would have liked to write more, but four kids made that impossible in those days, and something seemed to have hobbled her right out of the gate. I once had to confide in her a terrible thing I’d done, and I expected she’d be angry. Instead, she took my burden on her own shoulders and freed me altogether. “I should have done more to help you,” she said, and put her hand on mine.
When I went to visit her after I’d sent the proofs of In Falling Snow, I found them on the chair by her bed, and next to them, her notebook where she’d written page numbers and errors she’d caught. I’d forgotten that I’d asked her to do it and nearly blew my cover by asking her why she was taking notes. I remembered just in time and thanked her for her work. She was so sick by then, and drugged. She kept losing her place, she said, falling asleep reading. But she’d read it all once, she said, and now she was reading it again for errors she might have missed. It’s very good, she said. “I’m so proud of you.”
In the end, she lived until In Falling Snow was published, died early the following year. She won’t read Swimming Home, although she’s there on every page. I miss her still.
First published in Qweekend. More on Swimming Home for novel readers here.