It’s running, Jim, but not as we know it / Back to life; back to reality / I’m fucked

The phone rings. It’s Mum.

You’ve done what? Broken it? What the hell, Mum? But you only fell getting out of the bloody car! And you bounced straight back up again. Plus a torn ligament? Jesus Christ. So, what happens now?”

FFS. I’m due in work half an hour ago. I pull over and ring my boss. Satnav enter new destination: Huddersfield Orthopaedics.

Mum went all Del Boy-at-the-bar on me, and slid down the outside of the car in some comedy slow-motion “did that really just happen?” move right in front of my eyes. Once me and tills stopped pissing ourselves laughing (I’m not some heartless bitch: she jumped straight back up and appeared to be alright) it transpired that her knee and the curb didn’t get on. This meant the subsequent three weeks of hospital visits, packing bags, shopping trips, and endless cut & paste “Are you ok?” / do you need anything?” text messages, plus dishing out regular bollockings when she blatantly refused to use her crutches because they’ll ‘make (her) look old and decrepit… But I don’t want to be a burden, Rach.’ 😮

Meanwhile…

Mummy, can I go out on my bike?”

I’ve just walked in through the front door from work. I have 24 bags slung over both shoulders, draped across my body, and the veins are popping out at either side of the circulation-stopping grooves I’ve managed to indent into my hands by carrying too much shit around in plastic bags. I’ve also just completed a list of ball-aching chores which I won’t waste your time in reciting, including getting cash to pay for something I’ve got no idea about for one of the clubs my daughter goes to. It might be something to do with a farm, or bowling, or it could just be protection money. I’ll pay it – I don’t honestly care. I look across to the kitchen sink, where waiting for me is an unholy pile of ceramic shite still caked in ketchup from last night’s tea.

Yeah, tills. Go and get changed and I’ll get your bike up from the cellar. Give me ten minutes.” I mentally prepare myself for pushing my sturdy 6-yr old daughter plus her steel frame bike half a mile up hill whilst she (ahem) ‘pedals’ and then gear myself up to run alongside her for the next mile-and-a-half downhill hollering ‘brake… BRAKE!’ at her as she grins and nudges my minute/miling to something akin to a track session.

Meanwhile…

*NEW EMAIL ARRIVES IN INBOX

Dear Rachel,

I’m very happy to attach the millionth copyedited version of your manuscript. There is absolutely no rush in getting back to me with your revision, because I’m officially the loveliest editor in the world, but it’s over to you!

x

And she meant it – there is no time pressure (she genuinely IS the loveliest editor in the world.) Only the unenviable task of yet again having to completely re-read and edit my own 80,000 words which I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half already carefully sculpting. AAAAARRRGGGHHH! You’ve heard of snow blindness. This is word blindness, only worse, because there’s no option to fall to your knees and make an impromptu snow angel. The words aren’t comforting like that.

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And on the hundredth re-write…

Meanwhile…

‘Hi. Could I make an emergency dental appointment, please? I’ve got an infected wisdom tooth. Yep – had it for about 3 days. It’s not improving. OK, 3.15pm today is fine, thanks.’

I phone the dentist as my wisdom tooth has been keeping me up at nights with a throbbing pain, whilst during the day I’m off my tits on ibuprofen / paracetamol combo. I’ve stopped short of crushing and snorting the stuff, but only just.

Meanwhile…

*DING DING! NEW TEXT MESSAGE ARRIVES

Hey Rachel, it’s (one of the nicer non-fake fur coat wearing school mums). Just wondering if you’re still joining us on that 11-mile walk we spoke about this Saturday morning? Hope you can make it! X

I couldn’t make it last time we arranged something similar, and I let her down. I don’t want to let her down again. She seems nice. She’s had a rough time. It’s infinitely better than ‘going for a coffee’ and talking shit whilst sedentary. At least we’ll be moving.

Meanwhile…

TWITTER ALERT:

Tweet from my favourite Twalker (Twitter Stalker – just made it up) reads: Where’s the blogging gone? I thought you’d dried up!

But I haven’t dried up. I haven’t had time to dry up.

I’m fucked.

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I’m fucked.

And my running? Oh yeah, that. I’m back running again. It’s funny though, because it’s having to take its place in amongst the rest of my life. It doesn’t command and usurp my attention anymore. I’m building my running back up steadily, and on my terms. Anything past six miles isn’t feasible just yet. But in amongst the madness of the rest of my life, I may be fucked, but I am infinitely happier than I was before.

Maybe there’s a blog in there somewhere…

The late arrival to the DREAM BIG! party…

I was a late starter when it came to the whole ‘Dream Big!’ mantra. In fact, I arrived at the party just as they were emptying paper plates with discarded Wotsits into black bin liners and stacking up the fold-away chairs. But, Agadoo was still playing, so I hung around a bit.

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…Push pineapple, shake the tree…

And it’s funny, because even when I DID achieve mini life victories, I explained them away as being a fluke, or a freakish never-to-be-repeated piece of good fortune, or an Act of God (forgive the legal reference.) I never ever took the credit for them. Not ever.

Aged 18:

I passed my driving test, first time. On my 18th birthday – the day itself (oh, the pressure) – and very nearly flunked it. One more ‘minor’ error and it would have been game over. I answered 3 out of 3 of the Road Safety questions incorrectly, one example given below:

Q: What does this sign on a motorway mean?

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My Answer: ‘Erm, three lanes, two lanes, or one lane?’ I stammered, whilst offering up a pathetic little smile.

No, Rachel. It doesn’t. But the slightly aging man in the tweed jacket with a clipboard gave me a ‘Pass’ anyway. It’s because it’s my 18th birthday, today! I reasoned with myself. He couldn’t fail me on my birthday! It couldn’t possibly be because I’d just about managed to negotiate the L-plated Vauxhall Corsa around a corner without wiping out an old lady. I couldn’t give myself the credit for that. It was a fluke.

Aged 22:

I got a 2:1 in my Law Degree – against the odds (seriously, we won’t go there just now.) I’d had a virtual breakdown, taken a year out, changed universities, and returned to find myself Billy No Mates sitting at the back of a Leeds University lecture theatre wishing I’d never started the damn thing in the first place.

When my result came through, I had no Plan B. Pretty blondes floated and skipped around the University Campus telling of their impending next steps to Law School where they would become Daddy’s Little Protégé. I sat with a full fat latte in the canteen and wondered, What the hell do I do now? I wasn’t expecting a half decent result. It must have been an easy paper, this year, I told myself; the dissertation must have been semi-plagiarised. Did I cheat? I couldn’t be sure.

Aged 26:

I qualified as a solicitor – against the odds. (Again, you don’t need a full breakdown as to the disparity between my real, hapless self and the person I portrayed.) How have I even secured a training contract?

I dropped my biscuit in the milk jug during one important client meeting… AND THEN STUCK MY HAND IN TO RETRIEVE IT much to the horror of the Litigation Partner and his very wealthy client (in my defence, it was one of those posh biscuits covered in foil.) How was I not sacked? I qualified, but it was more by accident than by design. An Act of God, perhaps.

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Couldn’t waste it, could I?

(There are many, MANY more such examples, but for the sake of time and convenience we’ll skip the minutiae. And the Virgin London Marathon 2011. That’s in the book.)

***

Aged 36

I ran the Yorkshire Marathon 2014 in 3 hours and 16 minutes, averaging 7:30 min/miles for 26.2 miles. WHAT THE FUCK?! I went into overdrive with the IT’S A FLUKE / HAPPY ACCIDENT / ACT OF GOD apparently logical reasoning. After all, I couldn’t POSSIBLY have simply worked my arse off and achieved that time, could I?

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No sooner had I limped off the York University Campus post-marathon than I was already filled with dread and panic that this was somehow entirely outside of my control – a thing that had (fortunately) happened TO me, and not BECAUSE of me. I feared I would never again run like that, or achieve such a freakish result again.*

Remember, they’ve already binned the plates and stacked chairs at the DREAM BIG! party, and now Black Lace has finished on repeat play, people are slowly ambling outside into the car park. I’m left dancing on my own to The Conga whilst I try and mop up the last remnants of the DREAM BIG! happy vibe – along with a few crusty sandwiches and slightly warm cucumber sticks.

But it WAS my doing. All of it was my doing. I achieved all of those things, despite it appearing as though I am walking, talking anti-proof for the ‘Expectancy Theory’ (i.e. that proposes an individual makes choices based on the belief that there is a positive correlation between effort, performance and outcome.)

Dream big? DREAM BIG, you say? Even when I’ve LIVED the bloody dream, I STILL haven’t believed it!

So here we are. I am now aged 38 years old. The book I have written (‘Running for my Life: My 26.2 Mile Journey to Health and Happiness’ – Blink Publishing) is about to be listed for pre-order on Amazon. It won’t be released for another nine months – not until January 2018. But, I am refusing to allow myself to make up excuses for my dream being a fluke / happy chance / stroke of luck. It isn’t. I have lived that story, and I have written that book. It’s my party, and I own the fucking paper plates.

And as I sit browsing through my back catalogue of Dream Big! party invites, I can take myself within a millisecond to each and every one of those experiences, where – despite my putting in every ounce of effort humanly possible – I hadn’t dreamt about some fantastical, out-of-this-world positive outcome. I found that the effort sort of took care of that anyway.

It can happen anyway. It DOES happen, anyway! It is – perhaps – possible to Dream Big! in retrospect, to realise that simply by continuing to turn up / pound the rock / grind the stone / run the miles / write the words, the outcome is already being choreographed somewhere far grander and more exotic than the Black Lace Agadoo-playing dance floor.

That’s the party I want to be invited to. Hell, that’s the party I’m going to!

See you there.

* I ran 3:17 at VLM 2015. It wasn’t a fluke then, either.

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Dream Big, Tills. Dream Big… (or just work your arse off. Either will do.)

 

London Marathon Diary 2017, Sunday 5th Feb 2017: Who am I when I can’t run?

London Marathon Diary 2017

Sunday, 5th Feb 2017

Who am I when I can’t run?

Today is Sunday, 5th Feb, and it’s exactly 11 weeks – or 77 days – until the 2017 London Marathon.

How’s my training going? It’s going shit. I’ve already vented my frustration at having two weeks’ worth of KFC family-bucket sized, ‘Do you wanna go large with that?’ flu rampaging through our house, knocking me sideways, off my feet and away from any semblance of ‘real’ marathon training (ref. ‘Lemsips and Race Disasters’ Blog post.)

And then. AND THEN it got worse. I kicked my own arse so hard on the bastard treadmill playing some misconceived game of ‘catch up’ that I brought on an injury to my lower calf/Achilles area. This caused me to go all E.T and Phone Home on Thursday morning, as I stood by a wet, lonely bench high on Norland Moor with wide, sad eyes waiting for my long-suffering Other Half to pick me up 3 miles from my own front door (ref. ‘Beware: The Dreaded Treadmill Overkill’ Blog post.)

It is now Sunday. By my basic calculations, that is a mere THREE DAYS after the E.T Phone Home incident, and subsequent emergency Physio appointment at which he (Magician Dave) said – and I quote – ‘So, you WON’T be racing on Sunday then, Rach, will you?’

I didn’t answer.

I did believe in miracles, and I did turn up to the start line of the Dewsbury 10k race this morning. I knew it was a gamble: my leg would either handle it, or it wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t.

I set off knowing the grumblings were still there, and by only ONE MILE into the race, the pain was intensifying. At 1.7 miles, there was nowhere to go, and so I limped off the course and made an about-turn, facing the Walk of Shame back to the start.

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Runners stared at me as though witnessing a resurrection, as I trudged slowly down the street in the wrong direction, back to the centre of the toilet bowl that is Dewsbury.

‘Are you OK?’ A kind marshall asked, as I hobbled by, pathetically.

‘Injured.’ I said, feigning a sorry smile, whilst hobbling and pointing to my leg.

A St. John’s Ambulance pulled up, and a kind chap shouted out of the window ‘Do you want a lift back to the start, love?’

‘Yes. Yes, please, I do’ I shouted back, as the prospect of a 1.7 mile shuffle back down the Dewsbury U-bend wasn’t altogether appealing – certainly not in (short) shorts and a thin running top. I hopped in the van and made polite chatter with the crew, who looked grateful to have something to do. I turned down their kind offer of emergency Lucozade, having barely broken a sweat, and confirmed that I didn’t need bandaging or carrying anywhere, which seemed to dampen the mood slightly.

Once safely dropped off back at the Dewsbury bidet, I conveniently bumped into Andy, a lovely runner also hampered by injury, and a true gentleman. I stood with Andy, still slightly stunned from the wilful disobedience of my left leg, whilst wrapped up in his warm, winter coat with the oversized arms hanging down around my knees like a homespun Mr Tickle costume. We chatted about our recent running experiences and respective misfortunes, whilst my very own Hero in Human Form Cheryl (#FlyHighEdie) and baby Annie joined us. She hugged me with a warmth to challenge Andy’s overcoat, and the world seemed just that little bit brighter.

We waited for our respective Running Other Halves to cross the finish line – which they did in 41 and 43 minutes respectively (well done Tom & Dodd) and hobbled off to Weatherspoons, where I dunked my emergency non-branded digestives into a refill coffee to ease my running sorrows (I brought them along from home… just in case.)

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It’s all smiles… then RICE

And once back at home, it got me thinking. Two things:

Firstly: Who am I if I can’t run? How does it make me feel? What is my state of mind? And how does it– and will it – impact on the rest of my days, until I am free to bounce around the hills and vales once more in serotonin-enhanced bliss?

This may seem a little melodramatic (it has been known to be a particular penchant of mine) and also rather hasty, as I don’t yet know the full extent of my lower limb’s blatant refusal to play along with my marathon hopes and aspirations.

But these are questions that I will ponder, as the coming days of cross-training, rehab and ‘rest’ (NO! NOT THAT WORD) are on the menu. It already makes me shrink and recoil in my own skin to think that I am ALREADY struggling with this as a concept, whilst there are

  1. a) PLENTY of other people who are experiencing similar minor irritations like warts on an otherwise peachy arse; and
  2. b) there REALLY ARE FAR bigger problems to be facing in the world (and I know plenty of lovely, incredible people personally who are having those daily battles right here, and right now.)

I will put some more thought to this, and to the glaring flaws this highlights in my own ability to handle even mild adversity (of which I have had a reasonably generous dollop across my 38 years of spinning around like some preoccupied Tasmanian Devil on this oversized revolving marble, I must confess.)

Secondly: This is the start of my NEW Virgin London Marathon 2017 journal. It came to me in a lightbulb moment. For the next 77 days, I will document the ups and downs, the triumphs and disasters and the bumps in the road that will see me to the start of the VLM 2017… or not. I last did this on the run up to the VLM 2015, and – hell – it ended up being the very first chapter of my book ‘Running For My Life’ (which will be published Jan ’18 by @BlinkPublishing with signed copies also available on the free table at Tesco’s shortly after.)

 So, on Instagram* (Cullen_Rachel) I will post a photo EVERY DAY for the next 77 days to document that journey. Some days, it might be a photo of a bar of Dairy Milk and a Foam Roller, but it will all be a part of my journey to VLM 2017.

The question is: Will I make it?

*I still don’t quite ‘get’ Instagram; the whole hashtag thing, or the fact that I only have about 7 followers (you know who you are, and I love every single one of you :-D)

But my Mum loves me.

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Instagram?? Hashtag? Mum – Are you there?

WHAT’S YOUR DREAM?

What’s your dream?

Right at the end of Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts is (ahem) rescued from the skanky down-town bedsit by her Knight in Shining Armour as he pansies his way up the fire escape, red rose gripped between his chattering teeth, the voice of a local vagrant can be heard, saying ‘Welcome to Hollywood. What’s your dream?’

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Well, fortunately for me, I don’t need saving from a life of prostitution, and Gav’s really not good with horses, so I eliminated the need for him to gallop anywhere on his trusty white steed some while back.

Let’s also get the obvious Miss World responses out of the way for the sake of completeness:

  • World Peace;
  • Obama to remain as US president for an eternity, in the absence of any viable alternatives;
  • Anything at all relating to my daughter and her having a joyous, prosperous and pain-free future (including not ending up falling for an arsehole, avoiding a legal career, and generally deferring adulthood for as long as humanly possible);
  • A permanent end to the persistent problem of ‘roots’ for a pseudo-blonde (I actually gave this as a ‘serious’ answer during one Training Contract assessment day at a high profile City law firm in my mid-20s. I was unsuccessful.)

One Monday morning in May 2015, I walked into Waterstone’s bookshop on Princes St in Edinburgh. I gazed around at the thousands of titles lining the shelves, and felt mild panic at ever having to leave. ‘This is it,’ I remember thinking to myself. ‘This is my dream.’ I knew in that moment that one day, I would have my very own pristine, hard copy book for sale in that bookshop. Not in any bookshop: in THAT one.

Things have moved on in terms of bookshop layout and design, and boy, do these guys know their craft: Tables piled high with silky, smooth hard copies; crisp paperbacks stacked up like Jenga next to chalk boards displaying handwritten notes about The Author. A peace transcends the floors as bookworms and other general moochers peruse back covers, whilst the more focused muse over the self-helps (* the obvious exception to this being the Children’s Book section. I quick-stepped through this one, and hurdled at least two semi-abandoned toddlers.)

The day before, I’d completed the Edinburgh half marathon in a dream time of 1:30 (…and 45 seconds). I inched my way up the stairs (there are shit loads of them – especially on dead legs) thinking I couldn’t fall any more deeply in love with a bookshop.

And then I did.

I saw the coffee shop. Now, this really isn’t an advert for Waterstones, in Edinburgh. I am unashamedly a bookshop fanatic. I cried real, heartfelt tears when Borders closed through insolvency some years ago. ‘But how could it go bust? I spent a FORTUNE in there!’ my logical brain grappled to comprehend, but found no answer.

There was something special about that day, back in May 2015. I lined up and ordered my Extra Hot Skinny Mocha, and then took my seat at the one remaining table. It just so happened to be the two-seater with a perfectly unspoilt view of the castle.

I sat down, and began to write. I was writing the book that would sit stacked up – like perfect, polished Jenga blocks – on a table near the top of the stairs, enticing passing mocha-drinkers and rocky-road eaters on their way to the Café with a View. My chalk board would stand next to the table, with a short biography of The Author, Rachel Cullen. I saw it all: My Dream.

A year went by and I continued to write. Races came and went; chapters were written and rewritten; successes intermingled with disappointments, and life – as tends to happen – moved on.

August 2016 came around, and I somehow piggybacked a low cost return trip to Edinburgh by virtue of Gav’s business trip (he’d be lonely without me – for all of one night – I reasoned.)

As Gav left for the Edinburgh Office early next morning, I set off walking in search of my bookshop. I ignored silver-sprayed street entertainers mid-performance, and barely glanced at the kilted man giving his bagpipes CPR on the street corner; I weaved through bemused tourists and their oversized luggage, and hop-scotched small children in prams. I blanked dazzling SALE displays in otherwise debt-inducing dress shops, and I even walked straight past the latest running gear on show in a funky sports shop window. All to get to my literary spiritual home. Will MY table be free? The two-seater with a castle view? I wondered. What if someone else is sitting there? Do I politely ask them to leave? You can see this getting a little out of hand.

I saw the ‘W’ sign approaching in the distance and increased my pace. My bags felt heavy, weighted down with laptops and other apparently necessary plug-in devices, but once there, I didn’t plan on moving for quite some time.

Once up the stairs, I turned right. My table was taken, but I had a plan.

“Large Extra hot skinny mocha, please,” I said to the kind looking assistant who looked at me and smiled, as though she’d seen me before.  Telepathically, she knew I was in for the long haul.

I sat down to write. Only this time, I wasn’t writing my book. I was packaging it up to send out into the universe, to see if someone, somewhere would also share my vision – the hardback Jenga table display in Waterstones, Edinburgh with accompanying chalk board. I wrote for hours. I broke down my synopses to cover all of the possible why’s and how’s necessary to convince some invisible, unknown publisher that my book should be spared from the Slush Pile. I knew it wasn’t perfect; I knew it still needed work, but I believed it deserved the chance to stand shiny, polished and proud on that table.

The universe listened.

It’s now early November, 2016. And as things stand, my dream looks like it may well become a reality in January 2018.

*and again, for the purpose of concluding matters, my imminent and pending dream list also includes:

  • a sub-3:15 time at Virgin London Marathon 2017;
  • to run Boston marathon 2018 for my 40th birthday (I already have a qualifying time);
  • A vision relating to my work, which would be unfair to share at this moment in time;
  • A permanent end to the persistent problem of ‘roots’ for a pseudo-blond (Or even a semi-permanent one will do.)

The Painting

It hangs on my bedroom wall. I see it every morning, and umpteen times throughout the day.

I walk right up to it every time I need to get a pair of running shorts from my drawer.

Most of those times, I don’t even notice it anymore. It’s just there – a splash of colour against the equally beautiful old exposed stone.

This morning, I noticed it for the first time in a long time. Why? Why have I noticed it again now? What does it mean to me?

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Chas Jacobs’ image of Cross Bay Challenge for Cancercare.org.uk

Take a look at it. It may be to your liking, it may not be. It’s my favourite artist’s depiction of a race I did for the very first time back in 2011 (see chasjacobs.co.uk) I was feeling experimental that year. This one was a real leap into the vast unknown, and something I never imagined I would comprehend: a half marathon across sand. The Crossbay Challenge was that race. We would run across the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay from Hest Bank, in Lancashire to Flookburgh, in Cumbria.

I was open to all possibilities. I wasn’t crippled with fear, or consumed with ‘what if’s.’ I wasn’t chasing a time, or worried about outcome. I was free in every sense of the word. I felt a strange calmness about the possibilities that lay ahead. Could I run across sand? I’d never tried before. Could I run a half marathon across sand? No idea. I didn’t even know what to wear. Do I need a snorkel?

And so I rocked up – free of mental baggage and anguish, and I just ran. The sky looked exactly like it does in the painting (well, almost – other than the big puffy cotton wool clouds. I love them: artistic license.) The sand was like that too. Honestly. It was incredible.

I remember the vast pool of runners setting off, and then dispersing to form a long, meandering snake of silent, sandy footsteps for the next 13.1 miles. I’ve never known peace like it. There was no slamming of tired, heavy feet on tarmac. There was no traffic. At times, there were no voices. There were no roads. At many points, only the sand and the sea surrounded us for miles and miles. The textures of the sand changes throughout the race: in places, it was hard and compacted with deep ridges which I could feel though the soles of my sodden trainers. In others, it was light and ‘sea sidey’: I had all on to stop myself from making an impromptu sand castle complete with flag and moat.

We ran through tiny streams and waded through waist-deep tidal pools. And I remember the peace. On that day – back in 2011 – I knew there would never be another one quite like it. It was a very special moment in time that would never be repeated. Not ever.

Back to the painting: I love it for so many reasons. I love the vibrancy of the colours; the simplicity of the shapes; the lack of complex, self-indulgent, thought-provoking bullshit. I love it because it makes me feel light, and happy and full of joy. Just like I did on that day back in 2011.

But it doesn’t stop there. Take a closer look at the painting. You won’t spot it – nobody would.

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It’s me!

Can you see me? I am IN the painting. I was a PART of that day. I SAW the sky so ridiculously blue that a child could have painted it. I FELT the different textures of the sand, and I HEARD the peace: the overwhelming sound of absolute tranquillity.

I am wearing race number 464. Chas Jacobs can’t have known what it meant to me: his offer to include me in his magnificent scene. The photo below is the one of me from the race, from which Chas added me to the other faceless, carefree runners.

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Happiness is…

This painting reminds me of a time when I wasn’t blighted by fear of outcome, when I was open minded enough to risk failure in the pursuit of life experiences, and trying new things: In life as in running. It reminds me that, as much as I can celebrate my achievements, my times, PBs, medals, even bloody crowns on Strava (!!) it isn’t actually the result that matters – it’s what happens along the way.

So, when I pulled out my running shorts from my top drawer this morning, I was reminded to love the journey and not fear the outcome. Always.

*I have done the Crossbay challenge another three times since that magical day in 2011, and – as predicted – I have never experienced it in this way since. Think Armageddon and headwinds on a sinking travelator moving in the wrong direction…

The Homeless Man in the Coffee Shop

THE HOMELESS MAN IN THE COFFEE SHOP

I’m sitting in a coffee shop writing my book – well, editing it if truth be told (I may well be some time…)

I’m upstairs: there are plenty of indulgent, polished, leather sofas up here. The girl to my right is in her early 20s. She’s reading a book on ‘Corporate Strategy’ as the classical symphonies playing on auto-repeat reach their crescendo. Her navy blue suit jacket remains firmly in place whilst she brushes up on her Marketing Mantra and breaks chunks off a double-chocolate muffin.

The lady ahead of me has gone for the understated, intellectual look: expensive cashmere cardigan thrown over her Laura Ashley number, topped off with modern, dark-rimmed glasses which perch delicately at the end of her nose. She checks her Iphone: no call from Obama as yet this morning, but SHIT! She’s forgotten to ask the Nanny to take some corn-fed chicken out of the freezer for later. Oh well, another stop off at Waitrose it is then…

Two Corporate Suits are exchanging mind-boggling ideologies at a table nearby:

“So, what do you make of this new American strategy then?” the older one throws into the mix. The younger one looks perplexed, and shuffles his double-shot Americano around uncomfortably. He looks over at me, and I smile.

An older gentleman is settled over in the corner. I’d guess his was a grande full-fat mocha with all the trimmings, but the shovel of a spoon emerging from his bucket-size ceramic mug kind of gives that away. Maybe he missed breakfast.

I glance over towards the stairs and a man is on his way up. He’s walking towards me, and he’s clearly homeless. He stands out in here. There are plenty of chairs – loads of tables available too. It’s my idea of perfection in terms of bodies-to-tables ratio, in fact. I’m happy with my choice. He keeps walking towards my table. His skinny legs are drowning in filthy, sad jogging bottoms. His cheeks are utterly hollow and look to have literally caved in around the toothless cavity in his face. His skin is weathered, and the yellow stains on his fingers look like dip-dye.

I’m at a small, round table with two other empty chairs. He comes and sits in the chair opposite me, at my table. He’s gone for some high-calorie concoction with a shit load of cream dumped on the top, and chocolate sprinkles. I wonder how much it’s cost.

As he moves to sit down, the faces look over. Corporate Suits break off from their conversation about American Policy; Cashmere Knit interrupts her text to the Nanny and peers up over her half-glasses; the older man in the corner fleetingly breaks eye contact with his bowl and spoon. They all look as if to say, “Look at that! The homeless man is going to go and sit with that lady over there on her Macbook Pro”

I look at them all, and I wonder to myself “What do you expect me to do now? Get up and move tables? Extract myself from the ludicrous possibility of sharing a table with a homeless man? Guffaw and huff as I’m ‘inconvenienced’ into moving half a metre to another, more suitable place to sit?” I wonder what they would do, and I see the answer in all of their faces.

I ease back in my comfy, polished brown leather chair, and I begin to write. The homeless man sits quietly opposite me and slowly begins to sip his small mug of whipped cream. The glaring eyes look away: Nothing to see here – move on.

He gets out his baccy and prepares a roll-up. After a few minutes, the whipped-cream drink has gone, and he’s on his way. He’s shortly followed by the Corporate Suits.

I wonder where he’s going. I wonder what the others thought when I stayed in my seat.

As the classical symphonies continue to play, I take another swig of my grande, skinny, extra-hot cappuccino.

I’m glad I stayed in my seat.

I can write! Belief in a box…thanks to Pip the Three-Legged Dog

I can write. I know I can write – and I know I’m good at it. Ever since I won a school writing competition when I was 9 for my story about Pip the three-legged dog who lived down my road, I’ve known I can write. I felt like a bit of a fraud at the time – there actually WAS a three-legged dog called Pip who lived down our road. All I did was write about her – I didn’t make it up or anything. In my mind, where was the talent in that? I was simply telling the story of a dog who lived down our street.

I was well aware that my story of Pip the three-legged dog wasn’t some work of imaginative literary genius. I didn’t even have to use my imagination! The story was there – right in front of me. I thought that REAL stories were made up, coming from a place that doesn’t really exist. One of my absolute favourites being Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Now THAT was a real story…

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The original story of Pip, the three-legged dog

I wondered if my teachers had misunderstood, and given me credit for creating something I didn’t even conceive. Anyway, I sheepishly took their kind, encouraging comments and I held on to them. I filed them away in my box labelled ‘Self-Belief: Proof that I Can Write.’

Even now, I have to force myself to commit to such a brazenly confident, self-assured statement, but I keep winning that arm-wrestle with my nemesis, Self-Belief.

I’ve been writing a book over the past year. Just like my story of Pip the three-legged dog, it is based on my reality. It proverbially comes from ‘down my street’ and not some far-off, distant imaginary land. And just like my thoughts when I was 9 – how is that a real story? Is it even worth telling? It’s hardly Harry Potter and the Stones of Azerbaijan (apologies – I’m not fully up to speed with all the Potter works – it’s not my genre.)

Regardless, I rifled through my box of Proof that I Can Write, and I found my evidence. And so I kept on writing my story.

I gained a bit of momentum, and eventually began putting out some tentative feelers on my work. Armed with my weighty doorstop copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2016’, and fully geared up for the ego-bashing of endless visits to the Slush Pile, I braced myself for the ride: I’m told the Channel can be choppy at this time of year.

Hours of composing synopses, covering letters, market research on potential readers.

Endless hours.

“What did you do on Saturday night, Rach?”

“Oh, erm, I spent the best part of 3 hours completing one submission to a single publisher, in the knowledge that I can most likely expect a one-liner email in response titled ‘Thanks but No Thanks’… Yeah it was ace. You?”

“Right. Yeah… Is Gav ok? What did he get up to?”

“Yeah, he’s good thanks. I didn’t see much of him to be honest, although he was sitting right next to me…”

Hmmm. Sorry Gav.

It felt like I’d personally dredged the bottom of the canal by the time I ticked off my first five hand-picked publishers. Each submission had taken hours – no – days of my life, and also a little bit of me thrown into the mix.

Monday came, and as I stood in our kitchen, the first one-liner Slush Pile email response came through. It was softened by the inclusion of some genuinely helpful feedback, and kind, encouraging comments, but I was in the Slush Pile nevertheless. I’d braced myself for this, so I knew to prepare for the blow. Within the space of a few hours, four of my first five submissions had replied: they seemed to appreciate the thorough, extensive and considered nature of my proposal, and my writing style, but it wasn’t for them.

“Jesus. I may have to wade through hundreds of these, Gav. Even then, I might have to consider self-publishing. This is the hardest thing in the world.” (The Dubai marathon came a close second.)

Best get settled for a long old ride, then…

I jumped off the treadmill on Tuesday morning, after a particularly successful speed session. Back in the changing room, I did my usual brief iPhone email scan. Like Charlie Bucket slowly peeling the corner of his very last Wonka Bar, this was my fifth – and only – remaining submission. And there it was.

Hi Rachel

We are attracted to this submission…”

To be continued…

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The original box – Belief in a box