Monday, 17 June 2013
Monday, 10 June 2013
The more eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that I have changed my name. Most people have said nothing, but a lot have asked why, so I thought it was about time I explained the whole story.
Here's the thing: my name was never Emily Carlisle.
In the grand scheme of things, this isn't an earth-shattering admission. Lots of writers use pen-names, and it’s not as though I’m really a 45-year old man called Barry, who wears suspenders at the weekend. But nevertheless, I feel it's time to come clean.
My name is Clare Mackintosh, and I'm a police officer.
Well, ex-police officer, actually. Despite a long-held desire to become a journalist, I instead ended up walking the thin blue line and writing nothing more creative than an overtime claim. I had turned my back on the arts in favour of a ‘proper job’, but the lack of inspiration made me wither inside. I found myself desperate to enhance the statements I took from victims of crime: 'Are you sure the suspect was just 'walking'?' I'd say. 'Could he perhaps have been 'limping'? Or 'shuffling'? How about 'pacing towards you in a menacing way?' My witness would look at me blankly, and I would finish the statement, sighing inwardly at its pedestrian tones.
Stifled by my collar and tie, I started writing, stuffing scraps of paper into my bedside table like a guilty secret. Snatches of story, angry commentary, a flash of personal reflection... I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and each sentence peeled me just a fraction more away from the day-job. A natural exhibitionist, and now a hopeless word-junkie, I began to crave feedback on my writing. I started More Than Just a Mother, blogging anonymously about bad parenting, interrupted sex and emotional angst. A magazine editor got in touch: would I like to write for them? And what was my name, anyway?
I panicked. Technically I wasn’t breaching any regulations, but I had a feeling the Chief would take a dim view on the frivolous journalistic antics of one of her Inspectors. So Emily Carlisle was born. A name plucked from nowhere, with the help of my husband, who found the whole thing rather fun. That first feature turned into more features, which turned into newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and a column for Cotswold Life. I took a career break and reinvented myself as a freelance journalist. Still bound by police codes of conduct, the nom de plume provided essential cover.
I became rather fond of Emily. She was far more adventurous than I was; audacious and confident, witty and sharp. The children grew used to my being called Emily on press trips, and even my husband stopped raising his eyebrows as he took another phone message for me. Secretly, I think he liked Emily too. Sleeping with two women added a certain frisson to his life, without the stress of an affair.
Last month I resigned from the police. A big decision, but life is better this way. I work from home, I see the kids, I run my own life, I write. I like it.
No longer constrained by the uniform I am free to write whatever I want, under whatever name I like. I can sack Emily. But shaking off a pseudonym is proving far harder than creating one. Like a middle-aged businessman who still carries the nickname acquired at school, Emily follows me around wherever I go. She stalks my inbox and infiltrates my post. She has spread herself so far across the internet that when I try to log on as me, the computer rejects me. Friends I met as Emily find it so impossible to call me Clare that they have settled on variety of hybrids. I simply can’t get rid of her.
I have resigned myself to having her around, like the friends with whom you no longer have any common ground, yet join for twice-yearly stilted catch-ups in a restaurant where the menu is more interesting than the conversation. Poor Emily. I feel more than a little guilty, abandoning her when she did so much for me in those early years. There should be a repository for cast-off pen-names: a great warehouse where unwanted monikers jostle for position on the shelves. Writers could apply for pseudonyms; criminals on the run could obtain new identities; MI5 could pick up spook handles. Emily Carlisle could have a far more exciting life than that of a part-mother, part-journalist. She always was more adventurous than me.
A version of this column appears in this month's issue of Cotswold Life.
Tuesday, 4 June 2013
The woman talked about the need for local provision, and I of course agreed. She spoke of helping expectant mothers, encouraging breast feeding, offering support. No argument there. And then she enthused about the joy of labour; the sense of euphoria a woman feels when she becomes a mother. And that's when I felt the phone slipping from my hand.
Quite a long time after my children were born, I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a label far more suited to those who have experienced the horrors of conflict, but nevertheless it was passed to me: an unwelcome gift which arrived in the form of shakes and anxiety attacks, flashbacks and nightmares. My memories of labour are fractured: snapshots of wires, surgical masks, the tiles on the ceilings of hospital corridors as we raced towards theatre. For many years these images would force themselves on me at specific times: when I closed my eyes at night; when I lay on my back; when I heard a newborn cry.
Gradually, over the last few years, the anxiety has lessened, to the point where I can walk into a hospital without checking my pace, and hear someone's birth story without a clutch of panic in my throat. The children are so much older now, and so the triggers are fewer: at school pick-up no-one cares how you laboured.
But today, as the voice on the phone grew fainter, and the room around me span, I saw it all again. From nowhere the smell of blood assaulted me, and I felt that familiar wave of panic engulf me until I was fighting to swallow. I can't talk, I told her. I can't...
I hung up and anchored myself against the kitchen counter, while the here-and-now continued around me, and I concentrated on bringing my breathing under control. In and out. In and out.
It has unnerved me: that a six-year-old experience still has such power over me; that the most innocuous of situations could trigger a panic attack. I thought I had beaten it, but now I wonder if I will always feel this way, and the prospect deadens my heart.
There are three types of mothers, I believe. There are those happy few who have textbook births, with support all around them and a healthy, term baby. Then there are the majority: the women forced to rip up their carefully thought-out birth plan, who wince when you ask them how the birth was, but then break into a grin and tell you it was all worth it. And finally there are the rest of us, stumbling blindly from labour as though from a gas explosion, unable to believe we have even survived. Survive we do, but I realise now that rarely do we escape unscathed.
Thursday, 30 May 2013
I shall keep this short and sweet, but as this blog has charted so much of my writing ups and downs, it feels right to share the news with you as soon as possible...
I am delighted to announce that I have accepted a two-book deal with Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown. I have a fantastic editor and I'm enormously excited about working with her. My first book will be out in e-book form and overseas in the autumn of 2014, with the UK paperback coming out a few months later. I simply couldn't be more excited!
Thank you to everyone who has read this blog, shared it, voted for it, followed me on Twitter or otherwise supported me both online and in person over the last three years, as I tentatively moved from writing blog posts to writing novels. You told me I could do it - and now, astonishingly, it seems that I have.
Monday, 20 May 2013
I saw the competition on the morning of the closing date, when I was sitting in the garden on one of those rare sunny days we had last month, trying to write a column and dropping biscuit crumbs in my keyboard. It was the perfect procrastination opportunity, and I spent a happy hour finding things to rhyme with Chekhov. As poetry has never been My Thing, I was forced to eat more biscuits while I found The Muse.
However, I'm delighted to report that I won the competition, and will be jetting off in September to Chez Castillon, in the South of France, for a six-night writing course with Jane. I will be starting book two round about that time, so it couldn't be more perfect. You can read my winning entry, and the very funny runners-up, here.
Tuesday, 14 May 2013
The boys were five weeks old when Alex died. In my head he has never got any older - how could he? If I think of those thirty-five days - and rarely do I allow myself to do so - it is of a hand curled around my finger; a butterfly heart beneath the translucent skin of a child who never left his cot. A child who never laughed. A child who never grew big enough for clothes knitted on the tiniest needles.
With a mixture of pride and grief I see Josh grow into his role of the only son. I see his shadow fade as he makes his way through life alone, and slowly, carefully, I pick my way through life as a mother of three, not four.
And throughout all of this, Alex remains a baby. A tiny, three-pound, bird-like baby, whose weight is far less than the blankets in which he is wrapped. He lies in my memory as he lay in my arms: quietly, silently, calmly.
Last week Josh asked to do some sewing. 'I want to make a picture', he said. He trawled my fabric stash for greens and blues; for red, for ribbon and for buttons, and he sat on the floor with his tongue between his teeth as he pulled the thread back and forth. 'It's Heaven,' he explained, pointing to the strip of sky stitched to the top. 'It's a huge poppy field in Heaven, and I'm going to use these buttons for Alex.'
'They're too big', Evie piped up, ever-concerned with accuracy. 'Alex was really, really small'.
Josh shook his head patiently. 'Yes,' he said, 'but not now. Now he's six, like me. Now he's big. Isn't he, Mummy?'
For six years I have closed my mind to the thought of how Alex would be now. I have turned away from imagining a second head on the pillow, another plate at the table. I have never let him grow up.
'Yes,' I said. 'I suppose he must be'.
So I took a deep breath and I listened to Josh tell me about Alex; about the games he plays in Heaven, and the friends he must surely have there. I heard tales which made me hide a smile, and I heard the imaginings of a boy who has come to terms with death far better than I ever could.
When I think of Alex, I remember pain and grief; impossible choices; a tiny white coffin. When Josh thinks of Alex, he smiles at the boy running free in a meadow of poppies; a world built out of the love of a brother left behind.
I can learn a great deal from my son, I think.