Well, indeed. It's not been especially productive for writing the bloody books, which is a bit of a shame. But it has had its upsides. Being at home has meant I've done more exercise in the past five weeks than I'd done for the five months before that. Having said that, we're now at the stage where my 8-year-old daughter can comfortably keep up with me on her (single-gear) bike. I might have to sneak in a few extra training sessions to make sure I can go a little bit faster than her. When she finally gets her hands on a multi-gear proper mountain bike, that's it. I've had it. And I've spent a lot of time learning the language of the small, unhinged human-ish being that is my little boy. Mainly, these are things he's learned from Andy's Dinosaur Adventures, although this is at least a step up from Peppa. Not sure where he got the scary, spiky badger he was talking about yesterday from though.
I am a little bit proud to share a project that my daughter has been working on, which is something that I've helped on a little bit, but is really all hers. It's one of those things where the school keep going on to us that she ought to be doing her daily dose of learning (some arcane grammar stuff just recently, which even the parents looked at and went, 'What?'), but actually the effort and energy is much better spent on writing songs, stories and this: Art To Help 08 (because she is eight, of course...). It makes me quite proud to think that her first thought is for others and for those that have helped her, rather than for herself. It's something that those who know me (be kind, above all things) will know I harp on about all the time, and something I wish I was a bit better at myself! That effort on her part has been wonderfully productive in raising money for The Children's Hospital Charity. Three generations of McClarence-Richardsons have been pretty good customers of the Children's, so it really was time to give something back.
Why have I not found time for writing, then? Some of it is the dulling effect I have already described of the medication I've been taking. I don't blame Citalopram for its cotton-wool-in-the-brain softening of the edges of everything. Indeed, given the choice between the rawness of feeling everything a bit too hard, and the enveloping cloak of the anti-depressant, I choose the latter. It allows space for the enjoyment of the normal, the bike rides, the climbing muddy banks (and the falling down on them), the silly stories and the home-Masterchef competition. These things - which the current crisis has created the time space to enjoy, without the need to be alert and ready to face the day by quarter past eight the following morning - are the things that matter, in a very real sense. Some of us have jobs that are important, and at the moment those jobs that are really important are suddenly the ones that everyone notices where they might not have before. But whatever the job, what our work lives might give us in fulfilment, projects to work on, challenges to meet, they do not matter in the grand scheme of our lives as much as those shared moments, whether they be the bike ride, the invention of a new type of scary monster, the shared look across a room, the love of one person for another. Some people's jobs are genuinely life-saving, and it's the life saved that makes it important. Lockdown may have taken away some opportunities, but the ones it has created have more than compensated.
What else might I blame my lack of creativity on, then? Some of it is doubtless because my attention has been on trying to learn to play the guitar properly (my second on-street performance of a standard tune with complicated chords in it will be tomorrow night; I would go as far as to say it's not the 'gig' I've been the most unprepared for, but it's close), and spent a load of time trying to record bits at the studio before all that was kiboshed. I've found a load of fiddly, bitty jobs to do as well, which unlike writing have a timeframe of maybe an hour before something is genuinely different. Things like fitting a cabinet to a wall, which has the added bonus of feeling very much like the sort of thing a real adult should be doing.
But, really, the hardest part has been to motivate myself to write the parts of the story that weren't to do with Edward Strelley and his star-crossed relationship with Elizabeth. This time out, for whatever reason, I've found him very easy to write, as though the thoughts he has, the things he feels and the way he reacts to those feelings is not so much a creation of mine as just a part of me. His friends - Longshawe, Pike and de Winter, and Andrew Shepherd and Guy Fletcher - do not come so easily. The framework is there, partly because there are a few matters of more-or-less fixed history that I can't avoid. That might be a problem more than anything, I suppose, because writing to a fixed storyline is much harder for me than when I have free rein. Strelley seems to have drained my energy for book IV in some way. But I do have an idea for a coda to the letter I put up on here just recently, which pulls the story around (for him, at least) to have a tilt into the events that form the fifth story. I've also had a brainwave in how to shape what might eventually become book VI, which is still some way off but has given me some energy and brings what might otherwise be a peripheral character right into the thick of things. Hopefully, these things will give me some momentum. It's hard to lay Strelley aside and focus on the other strands, because he is much closer to me in many ways than my other characters. It's equally hard to write a love story where one of the characters is 'off-screen' for most of the book, and all the 'plot' is what one of them feels. But what I've noticed about Strelley is that he now - at the end of book IV - fully embraces what he continues to feel for Elizabeth, even though it at times cripples him, and even though he cannot see how to fulfil his dream of being with her even for a moment. It's a shift that has given him a will to survive, to carry on even through a second banishment, to wait and hope that whatever the future brings, it will be worth waiting for.
Something from the very end of book IV, in its unedited and raw form!
My world has changed. I see that now.
Once, before, I could imagine a way. Now, there is nothing that is clear. I will write it again, for it seems that it shall never be more appropriate: the future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and buried, bears contemplation.
And I contemplate it. Every day, I think back to a time when I didn’t know what it was to be happy, because I didn’t know that I was happy. It is only the absence of that happiness that has shown me so clearly what my happiness was.
I find ways to occupy myself, especially now. I have my tasks, and I take some momentary pleasure in thinking about them. Gilbert’s book is interesting, a worthy challenge. I did not think myself a thief, but I find that my mind is beginning to work that way. I find comfort in being reunited with Will Pike, and sharing the burden that he bears. He seems to have found his station in being mentor, friend and advisor to the girl queen. Once, that would have occupied me and I would have found contentment in the game, particularly with such opponents to play against. But not now. When my mind quiets itself, when I try to find calm and peace, it is you, always you, only you in my thoughts.
I cannot compass a return. I cannot come back, not after having such an encounter with the man who will doubtless be all but king in a few months. And so my world has changed. A moment with you would be worth the death it must bring, but there is a fool’s hope in me that there is still a chance, not of a moment, but of a life lived together. A fool’s hope that the world might release you from your life and me from mine, and we might read and argue and think and laugh as we once did. But that hope fades. You will fulfil your destiny as a great princess, perhaps even a queen of some far-flung foreign land. I will wander on, lost in a world with you in it, but further away now than even when I was at Constantinople, behind a barrier greater and more terrible than those that I thought insurmountable before.
Sometimes I watch the people of this great city going by, wondering if one of them might be you. Wondering if I might have missed something that would put you here, now, within my reach. And then I remember that the thought is all hope and no truth, a wish without a genie to make it real. I do not trust hope, not any more.
As I write I realise that you will not read these words, as it is for so many of the words I have written and thought. My hope - such as it is - is that you have forgotten, that you have found a life that makes you whole and happy and that perhaps when you remember me, you might smile. But I do not want for you the load I carry, I do not want for you the weight of hopelessness. Perhaps you might think of me as a moment of the past, as you might recall a piece of music or a play or a hunt, a moment worth having lived, but not one which causes you to dwell for its having passed. That is what I wish for you. To smile should you remember, but not to be sad to be apart.
A wise man spoke to me of that still, small voice of calm that you might hear when all others are quiet. That voice which brings comfort in the darkness, that voice which allows you to master your fears of dying, of being alone, of the wrongs in the world. I shall listen for it, I shall try to find it in the scripture, in my books, in the words of others, and I shall try to find my peace.
I pray, Elizabeth, that you have found yours.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought