After five years of seeking time to write, suddenly time was heavy on my hands. My husband Peter had gone back to sea after three months’ leave, my precious novel, Louisa Elliott, was sitting on an agent’s desk in London, waiting to be read and decided upon. Wondering what would happen next, longing for news yet dreading it, I knew it could be weeks before I received a reply. Like a student awaiting exam results, I kept going over the text and thinking how flat it was, how dull.
One afternoon, I found myself weeping. I was missing Peter, feeling bereft, and most of all wondering whether the years of effort I’d put into that book had been worthwhile. In effect, I was experiencing something common to all authors at the end of a book – the sudden drop in adrenaline. After the big push to get things finished, to polish the words to a sparkling shine, comes the reaction. Life is so dead, it feels like bereavement.
In the midst of that overwhelming misery, all at once, from nowhere, came an extraordinary lightness. A feeling of comfort, as though someone much loved had placed their arms around me and said, ‘Don’t worry – it’ll be fine.’ Not a physical hug but a spiritual one – one that wiped away misery like tears from a child.
Impossible to explain. All that matters is the effect it had on me. I realized the characters were still there – still in my mind and awaiting the rest of their lives in the next book.
I’d said I wasn’t ready to start writing again, but over the next few days, I found myself making notes – and a little nub of hope started to grow. Listening to the radio, I kept hearing the haunting refrain of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. To me those fields of destruction were Flanders; those baptisms of fire, the Somme. An insistent message, reminding me so poignantly of that little WW1 diary.
A month later two good things happened at once. Peter wrote to say the next port was Rotterdam for a voyage to Ravenna, Italy. Our teenage son would have finished school for the summer, and could we join him for a couple of weeks? With the next post came a letter from Lisa Eveleigh at AP Watt saying she’d very much enjoyed my novel and would be showing it to her boss, Caradoc King, when he returned from a business trip.
It was such thrilling news Peter was convinced I’d elect to stay home, but in the choice between a two-week sea-voyage with my husband, and possibly another lengthy wait for a decision on the novel, I chose the former. Our daughter Louise, with commitments at home, promised to forward any news, while I rang Lisa Eveleigh to explain.
After a smooth crossing from Hull, on arrival in Rotterdam early next morning Scott and I were met by the agent, who drove us straight to the ship. Peter was delighted to welcome us aboard. It was a quick turnaround. We sailed that evening for a small oil port on the River Seine.
I woke early, just as we were passing Le Havre. Navigating the deep water channel with the aid of a Seine pilot, Peter remained on the bridge as he had all night, eating both breakfast and lunch off a tray. Reliance was not a large vessel as tankers go, but I was surprised that we seemed to be sailing so far inland. In fact it was only about twenty miles, but we were moving at walking speed.
The weather was perfect, and we were enjoying unrivalled views of Normandy’s unspoiled countryside. On that still, slightly hazy summer’s morning, it was like drifting along in a dream of some vanished world, with half-timbered villages, farms and orchards, woodlands and meadows on either side. There were even spotted cows wading in the shallows, undisturbed by our gentle passage.
Next morning, our slow return downriver was a lovely echo of the day before; but then we were back into the Channel, rounding the wild coast of Brittany and entering the sunny, blustery Bay of Biscay. Reliance rolled a bit, but Scott and I were used to that, enjoying the salt wind and the sensation of riding Atlantic rollers. It was exhilarating, and even more wonderful to be spending these few days with Peter after almost two months apart. Optimistic about the novel, I was relaxed and happy, and had pushed further expectations to the back of my mind.
Unknown to me, Caradoc King had finished reading. His letter was dated the day after we boarded in Rotterdam.
After dark, just as we were entering the port of Bilbao in northern Spain, the Radio Officer came up to the bridge with a telex message. Addressed to the Master, it was in fact from Louise, for me. On my instruction she’d opened the letter:
‘Mum, Caradoc King shares enthusiasm with Lisa. Warm congratulations, novel rich, vivid, well written. Willing to find publisher. Needs to talk when convenient. Having a drink for you. Have a great holiday – Louise and Gran.’
The whoops of joy would have put a frigate to shame.