There are pencil lines all up one wall of the kitchen with dates to show how the children have got taller. They’re all roughly two years apart and have grown accordingly, but there’s a big gap between Elodie and Pierre’s latest marks because Juliette’s is missing.
Rather than feeling sad just now, I suddenly realised that meant I could guess how tall she’d be and I kissed the space, as though it were her forehead.
Luckily no one was here to see.
Petra is a lovely new writing friend. In her latest blog entry as Storycollector she posted a Bertolt Brecht poem, which she said made her think of Juliette and me.
|Celeste, Pierre, Younes, Tarik and Haydar with the dogs
Juliette loved the beach. We were on holiday in Southwold on the Suffolk coast when she became ill for the last time, and we’d had a lot of happy times in the week or so before the day that we lost her. Yesterday in spite of a sudden bitter wind, we met our very close friends, Saz and Tarik with their children at Frinton beach. Elodie was at her dance class, and Raphi went to a friend’s party but the nine of us that were there ate our fish and chips swiftly, before a cobweb-banishing walk along the sand with the overexcited dogs.
|Pierre freezing, with Celeste and Faiza (deep in conversation)
My lovely sister and her family spent the afternoon with us. They brought lots of fairy cakes for all the children to decorate. Pink, of course.
Then at four o’clock this morning I had a call from R who helped us with the children when Juliette was ill, and is now a much-loved friend. She’d just given birth to a little girl and wanted our permission to give her Juliette’s name as a middle name. It was a beautiful end to the day.
I’m sitting here, maudlin with the wine I said I’d stop drinking – well, I drink very little these days but this wine is pink and it’s Juliette’s birthday tomorrow. I’ve been watching the video of her last birthday, nine years ago.
My mother is there in our kitchen, and my sister Dani. Elodie and their friend Daisy are next to Juliette at the table in front of the original garish cake which is purple and covered with chocolate eggs. It was nearly Easter. Juliette looks happy. Pleased with her cake she pretends to bite it, with a big mouth and a huge smile. She’s wearing a badge which says “5” she’s unpinned from a card. I can’t bear to look at its brightness and promise.
It’s a moment, just a little one. I wanted to share it but technology is against me. I can’t work out how to get it off the disk onto my computer and this stupid fact, of all facts, is making me cry.
I’m writing again.
Suddenly I’ve got that creative buzz back, and it feels fantastic. I’ve got new ideas which add flesh to the characters in my novel that will in turn steer the story in a different direction. For now, I’m concentrating on the first chapter. Before this week I had the bare bones of a sketch, and the work I’m doing now seems to be adding colour and depth that I hope will bleed naturally into the subsequent chapters.
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing which I think is one of the best books on the art I’ve ever come across, and I’ve read a few. SK likens a story to finding a fossil. It’s already there, and it’s your job to find it. He claims you don’t know quite what shape it’s going to be until you’ve finished digging around it and can gently lift it into view. You take the intellect out, and let the subconscious magic do the work. Dorothea Brande had a similar idea. I just hope it’s working for me.
There’s a good reason why I should still be slumped as miserably as I have been, because it’s Juliette’s 14th birthday on Saturday. The day, as usual in the run-up is very much on my mind. I’m thinking about how with each year that passes she disappears from me. I could picture at six, seven, but at fourteen..? What would she even look like? Be like? I can only see her as a taller version of her five-year-old self, and I cannot for the life of me make her hair grow in my imagination. What would she want to do on her fourteenth birthday? Those of us that she left behind may take the dogs to the beach, or perhaps row a boat from Dedham with a picnic if the weather is nice enough. What will definitely happen is the garishly decorated birthday cake, and the release fourteen pink and purple balloons with our messages to her. We do this every year.
In the meantime, this morning, I’m wondering what would happen if Freja opens the old letter, and not Alec?
When your child dies, it shatters everything you used to believe was true; that the world is a safe place, that bad things don’t happen to good people and that children don’t die before their parents. Someone, somewhere has ripped up the rule book and your cosy, confined world is suddenly awe-inspiringly vast with possibilities.
After we lost Juliette eight years ago I stopped budgetting our money, no longer talked to people I didn’t like and avoided anything that wasn’t going to make me feel better. In one sense this was very liberating. I used to give too much time and care too much for the opinion of individuals who suddenly didn’t matter, and started to find gold in people that before losing Juliette I hadn’t noticed. I wrote a book. Never mind that writing is all I have ever longed to do since I was about 7, it took Juliette’s death to give me the confidence to do it.
It was a shock after three or four years to realise that in fact, nothing has changed. Or at least, I had changed beyond recognition but everything else was just as it had always been. It seems that credit card companies charge interest, even when your child has died. I had a close and loving circle of friends, but the world at large no longer gave me special treatment because of what had happened to me. I don’t have an automatic right to be published just because my book is about the daughter I lost. Watching Petals Fall has been and will be judged alongside books by authors who still have all their children.
So the old rules still apply. What I have lost and what I have gained is mine, and mine alone. The world has not changed and to move forward, I am bound by the same rules as everyone else. Whether this is fair is irrelevant because like Juliette dying, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. What I want to hold onto is that the depths I’ve plumbed are equal to the heights of my love for her. She taught me so much about seizing life and not to do so now feels like a betrayal.
I’m taking up my novel again and feel really hopeful once more that I can turn it into a story that people will want to read, and will be moved by. Juliette is sitting at my shoulder, urging me on.
I had a lovely email this morning from an old friend, Juliette’s godmother, which reminded me that I’m not the only one with a Juliette-shaped hole in their life. She was remembering after reading my last blog entry the times she’d spent alone with Juliette in hospital, and how special that was. From her viewpoint, hospital was an adventure for herself and for Juliette. She’s right about Juliette. She did enjoy her stays in hospital, at least once her initial crisis was over. She always had a favourite adult there (Steph, her godmother, one of my parents, my sister, or me) to do things with. The staff made a fuss of her and sometimes if she was well enough the nurses let her do the ward rounds with them, which she loved more than anything. And it was the sum of her experience. What did she have to compare it with? Besides, Juliette was a girl who seized each day. She wasn’t going to let a little thing like leukaemia stop her from doing that.
This dark mood I’m in has been insidious in persauding me that no one else misses Juliette like I do. It’s not true. S’s email this morning made me see how losing her has affected her godmother and though it sounds selfish, that really helps me. If I needed another reminder, I read Elodie’s facebook status from last night, and it just said, “This is when I miss her the most.” Poor little girl. I feel guilty that I wasn’t here to give her a hug. Where depression has narrowed my lens, these lights switched on make the landscape of grief three dimensional again. More realistic, and a lot less lonely.
I went to a talk last night by the writer, Andrea Levy. This was part of the Essex Book Festival, the sort of event which probably has all sorts of marketing aims but to me is just a wonderful indulgence of booky stuff. She was very good, reading excerpts from her most recent novel, The Long Song, in the voice of an elderly Jamaican woman. The voice was so startlingly different to her clipped English tones that I thought at first it couldn’t possibly be her. I don’t know why I was surprised. Being a writer has so much to do with being able to adopt others’ voices naturally. Not so very different from acting. Speaking of voices (ha ha) I still can’t talk, so the friend I was with kindly read out the question I wanted to ask the writer about character and um, voice. Andrea Levy lit up as she talked about the writing process and I felt the smallest burst of elation, thinking “Yes! That’s what it feels like!” The thought that I will soon be working on the novel again, and writing the new chapter of Watching Petals Fall (plus a thorough much-needed edit) feels like more proof that I am shifting away from the flat viewpoint of depression. I hope so, anyway.