The Email

It arrived in my inbox just as I’d returned home from this morning’s Dewsbury 10k road race. It was my intention to write a running blog based on today’s race, and the ‘unfinished business’ I felt I had in going back to the very place where I’d been forced to pull out through injury this time last year, and which was the start of a surprisingly difficult journey back from another form of lostness – one without running as my daily ‘fix’.

But The Email blew that plan out the water. You’ll see why. Names, ages, and places have all been changed to protect the identity of ‘Gillian’ – but the rest is exactly as it was sent to me, at 12.57pm today. My reply follows…

For the avoidance of any doubt, this is every reason why it was worth bearing my heart and soul in 337 pages of a book.

Oh, and it looks like I may well be running this year’s Great North Run… with a new friend 🙂

***

Dear Rachel,

My name is Gillian, I’m a 28 year old living with my parents in Coventry and I’m suffering with depression. I have always battled with daily anxiety, and feelings of always failing at life and that I’m nothing but a disappointment to myself and those around me. 
Six years ago I ran a 5k race for life in memory for my Grandad, and two years ago completed the British Heart Foundation’s May marathon. I completed the marathon equivalent in miles in a month. 
My mental health since had gone incredibly downhill, I have gained two stone, and badly depressed and struggle with every day life and have suicidal thoughts. I try to find a fight for my family and then I found your book…. I don’t think I have ever read a book so quickly, and actually I’m not someone who even reads. My best friend laughed at me when I told her I was reading a book. 
From start to finish I loved it, and cried at the end as you completed and continued your marathon journey. I relate to you in your book so much with my daily struggles, as I too suffer with that bad voice in my head. But yesterday as I came close to completing your book, I took a step forward.
Yesterday morning I had a meltdown, hysterically crying feeling like I’m in physical pain and can’t go on, my parents are struggling to cope with me and don’t know what to do, and they begged me to find an internal fight. 
So, while slumped on the sofa feeling sorry for myself reading your book, I took a break and I entered the ballot for the great north run. I think I’m mad, and If I’m successful to get a place I don’t know how I will do it, but I wanted to thank you.
Thank you for helping me to take a small step forward, even if it is just entering for the ballot I feel it is a start, and as you know it’s a long road to go, I know it is and it terrifies me but thanks to your book I have taken that step, I have taken my first step to fight these demons I face every day. Tomorrow, I plan to take my new running shoes and go out, even if it’s just a walk, it’s a start. You have inspired me and I just wanted to take the time to thank you! 
Thank you, Rachel Ann Cullen, I too will now begin to run for my life.
Kind regards 

Gillian

***

Dear Gillian

I have so much to say to you as I sit here – in tears – on my living room floor having recently come back in through the front door after putting myself on the start line of a race (it was the Dewsbury 10k today) for the umpteenth time since that initial marathon journey you have just been reading about. I’m the usual cocktail of post-race emotions: tired, yet full of energy; self-berating (Bastard Chimp always tells me I should have done better) yet reasonably happy with my efforts. But most of all, I feel proud. Proud of facing up to those horrible, toxic thoughts that tell me I shouldn’t even bother turning up in the first place, because I have no right to be there. Once again, I’ve won. 

And then I read your email…

Your email doesn’t feel like a ‘book review’ to me. It’s so much more than that. It is you seeing the tiniest chink of light in a very dark place; it’s you knowing that you have a friend in the world – even one whom you have never met. It is somebody reaching out and holding your hand in the loneliest of moments, and telling you that you are, and can be stronger than you ever imagined possible. It is every single reason why I wrote my book, and – although I’m afraid I don’t have any miracle cures or answers for you – it was always my hope that somebody just like you would pick up my book, read my story, and know that recovery can be possible. 

Please know that running ISN’T and MUSTN’T be seen as a ‘fix all’ for mental health demons. In the very early, darkest days of my own struggles, I needed help. As you know by reading my book, I was prescribed anti-depressant medication, and I fully believe that at that time, it helped me and was absolutely vital in keeping me from being swept of a cliff of hopelessness and despair. I would urge you to go and seek similar help, and to do it now. You don’t have to struggle alone, and you don’t need to isolate yourself from the world. It’s a different place now to when I was at my lowest ebb. Please tell me you will do that. Book in to see your GP, and discuss with them your thoughts and feelings – even if it sounds muddled, confused, and you don’t know where to begin. Just start somewhere…

Secondly, I applaud you for taking those other incremental steps towards a brighter, happier place. You have already felt the positive effects of completing the Race for Life 5K, and you can do that again. It is so fucking possible for you to do this. In entering the ballot for the Great North Run, you have chosen what I realise must seem like a big, scary, and intimidating goal but it IS possible. You CAN get yourself to the start line, and you CAN run / jog / walk / crawl over the finish line. 

What’s more, I will do it with you. Obviously, I can’t possibly join every person who gets in contact with me after reading my book (!) but you’re Charlie Bucket on this occasion, and you’ve won the Golden Ticket (or the opposite, depending on your viewpoint!) You had the balls to email me, and to tell me your story, just as I have had the balls to write mine and publish it in a book. I respect you enormously for doing that.

Although there are no guarantees for either of us, it is my hope that we can run / jog / walk – or crawl – across the finish line of the Great North Run 2018 together. 

You have just made a new long-distance friend, and she will support you on your journey.

So, thank you for getting in touch with me, and for being brave.

I look forward to hearing your progress, and know that I am championing you daily from my Yorkshire home. Take the steps I mentioned above – see your GP, and keep reaching out for the help and the support that you need, just like you have done by contacting me. 

All being well, I will see you in Newcastle on the 9th September.

With my very best wishes, 

Rachel Ann Cullen

Xxx

 

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The Ghost of Amanda Walker

It’s early Friday evening and I’m lying stretched out on my living room floor, with newspapers and magazines in which I am featured scattered all around me. I am sick of the sight of my own face. Fortunately, I have a small and (sadly) ever-decreasing pile of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs to my right, which is offset by the little pot of M&S Supergreen Salad to my left. The juxtaposition seems both crude and predictable, but I’m OK with that.

My life hasn’t been normal for approximately one week now. I’ve already written about the challenges of being a reluctant social media whore, and my initial apprehension at facing this inevitability. But the shocking thing is the degree to which I am successfully pulling it off.

‘You sounded so relaxed during the Marathon Talk interview, Rach. Great job!’

‘This interview is brilliant, Rachel! Well done!’

‘You were fab, Rach! Totally nailed it.’

And so it goes on…

In between Twitter messages congratulating me on my various PR performances, I turn to Gav and ask him, ‘How the fuck am I doing this, Gav?’

He has no answers.

I’ve heard from old school friends, ex- child-minders, long lost cousins, and work mates from two decades ago. I’ve been spoken to by the one mum in the school playground I had hoped wouldn’t acknowledge my existence, and quizzed loudly about my PR schedule in a Halifax nail bar, where an old lady sat listening in bemused silence, only to interject with, ‘some bloke threw himself off the motorway bridge last week, didn’t they? Poor soul.’ Although clearly spot on with the Mental Health theme, it did bring the mood in the place down to a point at which even a ‘Feeling Hot-Hot-Hot’ flame red couldn’t raise our spirits.

But on a manageable scale, and in a very small way, my story is impacting on people. As those who have (and haven’t) known me read my words on the page, and hear my voice on the radio, I get the distinct feeling that I’m not alone: I was never alone. And I can’t tell you the joy that brings me. To know that all the years of sadness, madness, and quiet, invisible lostness didn’t count for nothing; that my efforts to pull myself back from the brink of despair, and to watch my own mum grapple to do the same mattered. Hear that again: TO KNOW THAT IT MATTERED – means everything to me.

I sit opposite my mum in a coffee shop in town, and in between sips of extra hot skinny mochas (*again – the irony) we speak about the past week, and how it has felt for the pair of us. And as I look across at my lovely, endlessly selfless mum in her charity shop padded jacket and (what appears to be) a child’s headband keeping her mass of thick white hair from her dainty-featured face, I tell her about one particular question I was asked in a radio interview just a few days ago.

“So, you discuss you mum’s mental health issues in the book, Rachel. How is your mum now, and what does she make of your success?” one well-informed Northampton-based interviewer asked me whilst we were live on air.

I thought for a moment, and then it struck me that this is our story, and our success. You see, all those years ago, we wouldn’t have been sitting together chatting over our chocolate-sprinkled hot drinks in a busy place where people meet and talk. It wasn’t a part of our reality, back then. Just to sit and chat. It didn’t happen – it couldn’t happen – because the demons running amok in my mum’s mind held her captive, and they had pulled the curtains shut tight to avoid any hint of sunlight creeping in. The lightness couldn’t reach her – it was simply beyond her grasp.

“I’m pleased to say that my mum is really well, now,” I answer the male radio voice at the other end of the phone. “She has friends, and they go places; she chats to people she knows in town, and stops to have a quick word with a lady she knows from the knitting group, because it would be rude not to.” I’m now on a roll, pouring over all the remarkable changes that have happened in the years since my mum slayed her demons, and wrestled back the curtains.

“But most of all,” I continue, “This is our success. It is hers as much as it is mine. She showed me that she could find a way to accept help, and discover her joy in life – and she believed that I could do the same. So, the book and all it stands for is not some passive thing that she has observed from the distant sidelines. She has lived and breathed all of my struggles, and cheered for my success. She has cried quietly at times of despondency, and whooped loudly for every mini victory. All the races, all the medals; the first-place Breville Juicers and the no-place Christmas puddings. She has been there for it all, and – as I say in the book – I am as proud of her journey as she is of mine,”

 I glance across to another table in the very same coffee shop, and who is sitting there? None other than Amanda Walker, the girl whose mother inspired me when I was aged just 9 years old (Chapter ‘The Foil Blanket’) and who perhaps sowed the first ever seeds of marathon running in my young mind. I don’t even look twice: I know it’s her. She looks lost and alone. But then again, she always did look lost and alone. I wonder what the last thirty years have held for her, and I wonder why – and how – she is sitting in the very same coffee shop as me and my mum, today. Before I can find out, she has silently disappeared, as though a ghost has just vanished from a room.

And then I think to myself: Maybe it has…

***

It’s amazing to see photos of people (and pets) enjoying my book! You can buy Running For My Life by clicking here

Thanks for all the support, and the INCREDIBLE reviews we’re seeing on Amazon. Keep them coming!

Rachel x

 

Giving birth to an elephant… Part 3. And a very Happy New Year #gettingpublished

SOUND THE CLAXON! STOP THE PRESS! ALERT THE NEIGHBOURS! It’s finally happened. I wriggle myself around, piss on a stick, and there it is: a double line flashing before my eyes. Me and the attractive, mysterious bull elephant are EXPECTING!

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IT’S A BULL!!!

In writing terms, this means that the once unknown, faceless gatekeeper to my literary dreams who expressed an early interest in my submission… loves it. SHE LOVES IT! She believes in my story, and – guess what – she has invited me to travel down to the posh publishing house in a swanky part of London town to MEET HER! OH. MY. GOD. What will I do? What will I say? What will she be like? Will she like me? More importantly, will she like my bull elephant, when she meets him in person? I just don’t know.

It feels like being invited for a personal meeting with Mr Wonka at his infamous chocolate factory – the real one – not some shitty Cadbury World Birmingham-based alternative which doesn’t even have a chocolate river (*although I have been, and it is actually quite good.) This one has an Egg Room with genuine golden-egg producing geese, a full Oompa Loompa workforce, and – she assures me – the world famous everlasting gobstopper. All these could potentially be mine, subject to the whims of Mr Wonka, of course.

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Willy Wonka’s factory… this is not.

I gather up my Yorkshire raincoat and the three of us – my bull elephant, my raincoat and I – pile onto the Grand Central Halifax-to-King Cross direct train one nerve-racking Thursday morning.

I am on my way to the chocolate factory to meet Mr Wonka.

I don’t see or hear anything on the train. I don’t notice the chatter, or where/when the train stops to collect more miserable commuter passengers. I don’t have any interest in the buffet cart, or the on-board restaurant facilities. I don’t even care for the half-price Kit-Kat offer when purchased with an overpriced hot drink. All I care about is getting to London, finding the posh publishing house, and meeting Mr Wonka.

I finally arrive at the swanky destination on King’s Road in Chelsea. I can feel small beads of sweat trickle down the back of my neck as I feign calmness and inform the suited gentleman at the desk of my appointment.

‘Lovely. Just take the lift to the 3rd Floor, Madam,’ he tells me. ‘The publishing house reception is just on your right.’

I shoehorn the three of us into the centrally-placed small glass elevator, and as we slowly begin to ascend, I peer down onto the shrinking reception desk, below. Shit. Did he say the 3rd or 4th floor? I wasn’t listening, and so I’ve pressed the number 4 on the elevator wall without thinking. The doors ping open, and of course it’s wrong. I think I can pick up the faintest whiff of my own body odour as my Yorkshire raincoat struggles to make it back into the lift before the doors close again, trapping a sleeve. Oh, Jesus. It can’t happen like this. No – not like this.

I’m overly sprightly, and vaguely reminiscent of a children’s TV presenter when I introduce myself at the publishing house’s reception. Thankfully, most people are still out on their lunch break. I gawp around me at the funky surroundings, and glance down to my Yorkshire raincoat. It looks dreary and unexciting in the uber-trendy, unfamiliar setting. And I can see the George label clearly sticking out of the collar. ‘I’m standing here in this chic, stylish, literary dream factory carrying a raincoat from fucking Asda,’ I briefly berate myself, wondering if I should slyly dump it in the loo before finally meeting the literary version of Mr Wonka in approximately 25 seconds’ time. But I have my sensible head on – it may be chilly on the long trek back home to Yorkshire. Plus, it was £35, and I’m not one for waste…

Meanwhile, my bull elephant has made himself at home. He has settled on one of the striking Union Jack comfy sofas placed conveniently next to the Jenga-style display of recent glossy publications. He doesn’t seem remotely phased by the fact that these appear to be mostly CELEBRITY non-fiction books. He is unflustered as he sits cross-legged and casually flicks through the pages of a millionaire racing driver’s autobiography. I can’t believe it – he looks to be entirely… comfortable, here.

Mr Wonka eventually arrives back from lunch, and I begin to breathe for the first time since 10.19am this morning. We head out onto the King’s Road high street, and I don’t know which words are coming out of my mouth, or in what order. It feels like a first date, or meeting the Queen, only far more important than that.

We sit down in the exquisite boutique restaurant with fairy lights adorning all available space, and Mr Wonka talks gently and calmly to me and my elephant. He looks kindly upon the bulbous grey mass before him, and makes no mention of the misshapen left earlobe, or his particular shade of grey. He even appears to look fondly upon him, as though I am merely the vehicle by which he has happened across this – what I also consider to be – rather attractive beast.

And it is then that I know.

My bull elephant and I must work with this Editor. We both instantly love her, because she understands us. She sees past our flaws, and to the very heart of who we are, and why we are here.  We talk and talk, and she asks us both many questions. I’m proud of my bull elephant as he sits and holds his own in the swanky King’s Road eating establishment. He’s come a long way since the MacDonald’s car park, where we sat and wept together just a few months earlier.

I have a strong feeling that this is it. I don’t yet know of the two-month nervous wait we will have to endure before an offer for publication is made in November 2016, or the subsequent year – yes, a full year – of a thousand different editing processes. I’m entirely unaware of the journey that will unfold, and the endless hours of reading and re-reading over 80,000 of my own words for the seven hundredth time. I’m oblivious to the fact that I will write and edit the book in Tenerife, Cyprus, Edinburgh, Mallorca, and in myriad Costa coffee shops within a ten-mile radius of our Yorkshire home. In fact, my bull elephant and I will travel everywhere together. We will eat, sleep, and breathe the same air for the next 12 months, until we virtually morph into one another.

Similarly, I cannot even begin to imagine what my bull elephant will become. I can’t possibly know that he will turn heads, and people will begin to notice him. I have no concept, yet, of the amount of love for my bull elephant, as he nonchalantly swings his legs under the table amidst the twinkling fairy lights and sips his San Pellegrino through a straw. He doesn’t know it either, but he will appear in national newspapers and magazines; he will pose for photo shoots; he will be invited onto the television and radio, and asked, ‘Could you please tell us exactly how you have transformed yourself into the elephant we see before us, today?’

But Mr Wonka sees it all. His eyes can envisage the journey long before we can.

As we pack up to leave, Mr Wonka turns to us and says in his hypnotising, soft tones, ‘Congratulations to the pair of you…’

The expected due date is 11th January 2018.

You can pre-order a copy here… Running For My Life, by Rachel Ann Cullen

*And the great glass elevator in the publishing house? I’m planning on busting through the ceiling in it, next time…

All of the above will magically transform into this…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving birth to an elephant Part 2… or is it a giraffe?? #writingabook

It’s a Tuesday morning in early March 2016. I’ve just come off the treadmill at the gym, as I need to keep even the smallest amount of headspace from my attractive bull elephant other half. It was very intense at the beginning of our courtship, but this relationship needs to be sustainable – we’re both in it for the long-haul – and so normality resumes as best it can.

I stroll back to the changing room with the slightest whiff of smugness, having ticked off my dreaded speed session. Phew! Thank God that’s over. Job done. I reach for my IPhone from inside the locker, and without thinking, I click on the ‘mail’ icon in the bottom right hand corner. I find myself doing this on average ten times every fifteen minutes over any 23-hour period (I leave one hour for uninterrupted sleep), just to see how the universe is responding – or not – to the story of me and my elephant. I don’t honestly expect to see anything different from the other 160 times I have already checked since 6am this morning, but this is how habits are formed (having undertaken some light research, I discover that this process is called ‘chunking’ – where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.)

I am now a chunker. I chunk.

And there it is. The Email. It reads:

Dear Rachel

We’re attracted to this submission. It has a lot of promise but it also needs some re-writing and re-ordering. On the plus side, it has a fierce energy and a raw honesty, absolutely no preaching, and we relate to a woman who finds and saves herself by running.”

WHAT? FUCKING WHAT?? I take a screen shot of The Email and, with shaking hands, I ping it over to Gav. But I can’t wait the ten nanoseconds for his reply, and so I immediately pick up the phone.

‘They like it!’ I scream to him down the phone, as the woman drying her crotch in front of me with what appears to be a shrunken tea-towel no longer exists in my reality: it is just me, Gav, my bull elephant, and The Email. ‘They fucking like it!’ I repeat, as if to begin the whole process of opening the euphoric email again, just to indulge myself, and relive the precise moment when my relationship with the attractive bull elephant was at least acknowledged by the universe as existing – like it mattered.

I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my body as the prospect that somebody, somewhere, sees some vague potential in my beloved bull elephant, and that they may think he’s beautiful, too.

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This isn’t the actual selfie, but you get the gist…

Outside the gym, I take a selfie as evidence to Gav, and myself, of this monumental turning point. I check the selfie once more before pinging it across to Gav on WhatsApp. But my ridiculous, euphoric smile isn’t what I see. Instead, an ethereal glow radiates from the photograph. It is the unadulterated joy of potential: of what might be. This person – the one who has typed out the precise words expressing their ‘attraction’ to my submission – is now The Gatekeeper: the gatekeeper to my dreams.

Emails are exchanged, and over the coming weeks and months, a dialogue develops between the two of us.

‘Dear Rachel. We think that maybe your elephant might benefit from a slight makeover. Would it be possible, do you think, for him to work out a little, and to lose a small amount of weight?

Yes, I guess that’s possible. Although I do like his chunky thighs…

‘And he seems a little… grey to us. Would you consider adorning him in some brighter, funkier outfits, perhaps?’

I look over at my elephant who is sitting quietly, reading a book about self-acceptance on the sofa. Hmmmm, I think to myself, imagining my bull elephant dressed up like Timmy Mallet. I happen to quite like that shade of grey…

‘And finally, if we are to proceed with your submission, we will need you to take drastic action with your elephant’s ears. They are too flappy, and there is a small, misshapen chunk missing from the left lobe. Without a doubt, comprehensive reconstructive surgery will be required.’

I look again, and my heart sinks. I love my elephant. I love his colour, and his misshapen, flappy ears. I love the essence of him, and I don’t want him to undergo major cosmetic surgery to morph into a non-grey, neon version of himself that I no longer recognise. That’s not to say that certain improvements can’t be made and aren’t necessary, even (I totally know that they are) but I suddenly realise: it’s not my elephant they want at all. In fact, they don’t even want an elephant.

They want a giraffe dressed up as Timmy Mallet.

With the heartbreak of this realisation, we part ways, and they wish me and my beautiful bull elephant the best of luck on our continuing journey. I sit in the car and cry, because fleetingly I wonder, ‘Why couldn’t you be a giraffe who looks like Timmy Mallet? Why do you have to be a big old lump of grey elephant with misshapen ears?’ I think about the point of our relationship. Where are we going? And why? Do I really love him like I once thought I did? Do I believe in him – and in myself – enough to think that we could make it work? Salty tears roll down my cheeks and plop onto my hi-vis jacket as I ponder our future together. And then my self-indulgent woe is broken by the voice of a small child sitting in the back of the car.

‘Don’t cry, Mummy,’ she says. ‘It’ll be OK. Please don’t cry.’

You see, we have just finished Junior Parkrun, and only now – sitting in MacDonald’s car park at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning – have I allowed the weight of emotion to wash over me and to temporarily break me, whilst my daughter sits and watches, draining the contents of a blackcurrant Fruit Shoot, from her booster seat in the back.

‘It’s OK, Tills,’ I tell her, half laughing at the ridiculousness of the scene. ‘I’m OK. Honestly I am.’

How can I possibly explain to her how much this means to me; about the Joy of Potential, and the Gatekeeper to my Dreams? She frequently sees me sitting and tapping away on my MacBook Pro keyboard. She sees the Writers & Artists Yearbook 2016 take permanent residency on the small colouring table in our front room, and yet she has no idea that this is all for her. This is her story as much as it is mine; this is her elephant, and she will inherit all of it – whether she likes it or not.

I dry my exhausted tears and I commit once again to finding a home for my beautifully imperfect bull elephant.

We’re back to square one. Each submission is a masterpiece in itself: carefully crafted to the idiosyncrasies of the respective gatekeepers. I haven’t been through this process for a good few months, whilst I tried to bend and shape, flex and contort my bull elephant into the ill-fitting guise of a fluorescent giraffe. But I haven’t sold him out, and I haven’t sold my soul. For that, I am at least grateful.

I’m only at ‘B’ in my Encyclopedia of Hope, and I happen across a publishing house called ‘Blink Publishing’. I do my usual research on the internet, and I am unable to cross this off my list of potentials despite being overwhelmed with magnitude. These are big hitters – the real deal. They publish many incredible non-fiction, autobiographical books for the rich and famous, but I won’t be intimidated. I dig a bit deeper, and I discover a wealth of evidence to support this being a potential loving and nurturing home for my bull elephant. I swallow hard at the prospect of sending a snap-shot of my blundering, grey, scraggy-eared, unpolished bull to the appointed gatekeeper of said publishing house. But I think back to the encouraging words of Giraffe Random House and the early indications I have received of our potential, and I know I must.

It is now early August 2016, and I send my very best effort – an entirely filtered portrait of my bull elephant to the fancy publishing house. He is standing at an angle, thereby disguising the misshapen left earlobe, and the filter I have selected makes him appear to be more of a silvery grey than the miserable, rainy day, murky colour that he is.

I press ‘send’ and I know I couldn’t have done any more. The rest is down to good fortune, and the will of the universe.

One week goes by, and I hear nothing. I’ve hardened up emotionally since the trauma of the MacDonald’s car park pathetic fallacy scene. I simply must accept that this might be a long, or even endless journey. There may be another thousand condescending rejections to contend with, and I may be met with an insurmountable wall of silence (the slush pile is an over-populated, hostile place) so best I get my head around those realities now, before I fall foul of the ‘joy of potential’ honey trap again.

My newly emotionally-resilient self sends a politely worded chase-up email to the faceless gatekeeper at Blink Publishing. I feel nothing as I send the email. My task is now purely pragmatic, and I cannot afford to become too emotionally involved.

But then, I receive it. Another Email. It pings into my inbox, and once again the joy of potential dances around, flirting with me.

‘Dear Rachel

I have indeed received your submission, and I have been reading it for the past few days. I am really enjoying it, and will be able to give some more detailed feedback once finished. Please expect a fuller response by the end of the week!’

I show Gav, and he hops about it the living room, whilst I remain seated.

I just hope they want an elephant, I think to myself, as I look across the room at my bull who is lifting weights over in the corner. He’s just come back from the local tanning salon. What shade of grey is that? I wonder.

He’s already beginning to look rather different…

TO BE CONTINUED…

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Why writing a book is like giving birth to an elephant. Part 1 – The First Dates

It’s almost here. It’s booting me on the insides making my ribs ache, and the acid reflux is now so bad I’ve started adding Gaviscon Extra Strength to my tea instead of milk. I can’t sleep in any other position than on my side, propped up at a 45-degree angle with an expensive tubular pillow wedged between my crotch.

I am about to give birth to an elephant. The due date is 11th January, 2018. 

It all started back in April 2015, when a rather fetching bull elephant caught my eye across a crowded room. In writing terms then, this is where it all began. Lying in the bath the day before the London Marathon 2015, I began to write about how I was feeling. And I began to wonder… what if? Those two simple words: What if? What if I could tell my story… by writing a book? I was curious about the possibility.

Me and the attractive bull elephant exchanged numbers.

Our romance was a slow-burner. We went on many, many dates. We regularly met in a local coffee shop, where he read whilst I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote – and wrote – and I didn’t stop writing. Sometimes, he would up and leave as he had a train to catch, but I would sit there and carry on pouring my story onto the MacBook Pro, as though my life depended on it. Maybe it did? I don’t know.

It was a quiet, unspoken thing, our relationship. I knew we were casually ‘dating’ – that I was courting an elephant – but what do you say to people? ‘Oh, – I’m busy writing my – erm – (embarrassed cough) my… book.’ And sound like some arty farty literary wannabe wanker? Not likely.

Then the standard, polite response comes back. ‘Oh! That’s nice!’ complete with pitiful smirk as if to reiterate that:

  1. a) you won’t ever finish writing your (ahem) ‘book’; and
  2. b) even if you do, only your mum will ever read it after you’ve paid £500 to get ten copies printed for close Family & Friends.

Nope, it’s easier to avoid telling anyone that you’re dating an attractive bull elephant than it is to be the recipient of the quietly judgmental, mildly condescending looks and comments from those who genuinely do think you’ve lost the plot, and should go and get a ‘real job’ (I do have one of those, BTW)

But the feelings are already there. You care about the bull elephant. He matters to you. A great deal. There isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t think about him, or want to spend time with him. He needs you, and you need him. The naysayers have – thankfully – arrived too late to intercept the budding romance.

It’s game on.

Weeks roll into weeks, which bleed into months. Words don’t just appear on a page. They are crafted. They are placed there – every single one of them – until you begin to see the vague, shadowy formations of a book. A story is emerging, although it will take many more months until it even resembles a book as you know one to be. But somewhere, through the word blindness, the story is taking shape and morphing into something… you’re not quite sure what yet, but you will keep going. Because you will finish the book. You will continue to date the attractive bull elephant.

Because – you realise – you are falling in love with him.

The dates continue. Nothing much changes. We meet at the same time, go to the same place, and order the same drinks. Sometimes (in fact most times) we tell each other the same old stories we’ve told a thousand times before. We repeat anecdotes and laugh in the usual, predictable places. The writing follows suit. I write and re-write the same chapter 14 times. I chop this part and place it there; that once ‘hilarious’ section stopped being even remotely funny after I read it for the hundredth time. The words sometimes frustratingly dance on the screen as if to deliberately provoke a migraine.

Sometimes, I wonder if we will ever go somewhere different, the bull elephant and I, or even order a chai latte instead of a regular cappuccino…

A year goes by, and things have progressed to the point where we need to venture further afield. There is just enough meat on the feeble, literary skeleton to believe it could grow into something strong and beautiful. I believe in the story – I have lived and breathed the story. I also happen to believe that somewhere in the universe, another person will believe in it, too.

It’s time.

 

I know it’s not perfect. It’s a million miles away from being perfect, but the essence is there. The story – my story – is there. I do my research and buy a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook, 2016. I start at the beginning of the doorstop voluminous authority on all things publishing-related, which makes The Bible look like a pamphlet on ‘Keeping Warm through the Winter’. I conscientiously wade through the alphabetic list of potential publishers and agents who might – just might – be interested in the barely formed body of a story I have spent the last year piecing together. My inner perfectionist winces as it knows that much work is still to be done, but my desire to give this thing a heartbeat thankfully overrides any perfectionist terrorism which would otherwise kill my dream.

I spend hours and hours putting together carefully constructed synopses and example chapters, each requested in specifically onerous formats by individual publishing houses:

‘…Will consider unsolicited MMS (first three chapters only); include covering letter and SAE and allow 3 months for response. If possible, find an agent first…’

‘…Include SAE and allow 3 months for response. For novels, send 3 sample chapters and synopsis only. Max 10,000 words. Do not send MMS via email. Original documents will not be returned. If you do not hear from us within 6 months, you can assume your submission is unsuccessful…’

‘…Go straight to jail. Do not pass ‘GO’. Do not collect £200…’ [sorry, this one’s from Monopoly, but is a hell of a lot more straightforward…]  

‘OH F*CK OFF WANKER RANDOM HOUSE!’, I scream out loud, but then immediately regret it, as I know full well that they are the gatekeepers to any chance my fledgling relationship might have to succeed.

Meanwhile, my bull elephant sits and waits patiently, watching Strictly on the telly whilst I ignore him completely and wade through my publishing bible. It’s late on a Saturday night, but I can’t rest. I must send in just this one final submission which I’ve been working on for the last four-and-a-half hours. My daughter wakes up from her sleep, and I only pause briefly to go and tuck her back in bed whilst my subconscious mind continues to hunt around in the universe to find a home for my story. As I send out my thousands and thousands of carefully, individually crafted words into the vast unknown, I wonder: Who will read it? Where will it end up? Will anybody even bother? I’ve heard a lot about The Slush Pile. It’s commonly known that the majority of literary submissions end up there many, many times before they might be mercifully plucked out and defibrillated into life. Precious few make it.

That night, I don’t sleep.

The bull elephant is relegated to the sofa. And I wonder. What will happen to us? Will we survive? I’m desperate to know the answers, but I have none. I’ve done all I can.

The rest is down to the universe…

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 

 

 

 

AMSTERDAM HALF MARATHON PART 2: RACE DAY

We both sleep well and wake up to the most beautiful blue-sky morning. I check WeatherPro on my phone: a great big childlike sunshine stares back at me, and a temperature of 23c is predicted for today. Our race doesn’t start until midday, when arguably it will be at its hottest.

We know we’ve got ages to wait. I shower, and then deliberately waste time messing about with my race kit. Gav sticks his new nipple tape over his freshly shaven areolae. He bought them from the expo – not everyone suffers with painful, bleeding nipples, but my Gav does. I’ve seen them look red raw – like he’s breastfed teething triplets – after races. He’s hoping this Magic Tit Tape will minimise the chafing.

It’s approaching 10am when we mosey on down to the cool cafe / bar next to our Oosterpark loft apartment. I know what I’m having for brekkie – a simple croissant and a black coffee. The buzzer goes and Gav goes to collect that and his Dutch beans on toast. I feel relaxed; chilled out, even. Far more so than yesterday when we were traipsing past the fat whores texting (or “sexting”) in their shop windows. I don’t know why, but it feels nice to be free of anxiety. That will come later, I’m sure.

A pleasant looking girl approaches and excitedly asks if we’ve done the marathon, this morning. “No” I tell her. “Our race is later this afternoon.” She smiles, looking ever so slightly disappointed, and says “good luck” anyway. I don’t want to tell her than even the Kenyans won’t have finished, yet. Not that she should either know, or care.

It’s time to go, and we head off for the tram. But wait! A notice is stuck to the entirely (excuse the pun) Double Dutch tram timetable. “Tram numbers 3 and 24 are not running due to today’s marathon,” I roughly translate from Hurdy Gurdy. Ahh shit. Problem solver Gav instinctively approaches a heavily set, grubby-looking man who is standing close by blowing wafts of Silk Cut high into the otherwise toxin-free air. “Do you speak English?” he asks the filthy vagrant. “No” filthy vagrant replies. Ah. Ok. I can’t help but admire the lack of apology from smelly, toxic man. I laugh as Gav turns to me, stunned by his direct response.

An infinitely cleaner and far more accommodating young woman looks like a far safer bet. She walks across, looks intently at the Double Dutch tram timetable and map with us, and tries her best to help. It is comforting and reassuring to be back to the friendly, helpful vibe of the place, like the apple-rubber from yesterday, and girl in the cool cafe, earlier. Fortunately, Amsterdam’s initial shiny reception hasn’t lost its sheen.

With the help of friendly immaculate girl, we board the next tram. A large, uniformed woman sits behind the clear plastic screen in the middle of the four carriages. She wants to help us, and sees it as a personal challenge to make sure that we arrive at our destination – the Olympic Stadium – despite the obstacles of closed roads and tram diversions. She is efficient, but not smiling. Stern, yet kind. She writes down the exact metro stations we must locate, and the various tubes she is convinced will get us there. I repeat the instructions back to her like a child learning a new language. She nods, still looking focused and ever so slightly fierce. I’m glad she wants to help us. I say “thank you very much” but she isn’t interested in our fawning gratitude. She just wants us to get the fuck off her tram.

Her guidance is good. We arrive at the first destination and I go through her instructions again in my head. I glance across the platform and see a tall Viking-looking chap wearing trainers. “He’s doing the race” I say to Gav. On that basis, we cross over to the other side of the platform and sidle up next to him. We begin a direction-based conversation, and yet again we are in the company of an entirely helpful, Zen-like warrior who is only too happy to chitchat in pigeon English about races and the weather. We don’t get much further than this due to the language barrier, but his eyes are warm and kind. Another female arrives in trainers, and we know we’re safe. I look and smile at Zen Warrior: he smiles back – we both know why.

An influx of vest-numbered runners are suddenly all around us. The tram is crammed, as though we’ve all just arrived from another planet. I see a female runner eyeing me up and down, as though trying to work out my running pedigree and aligning that with her own. Either that, or she fancies me in my short shorts.

Before long we are seated on a circular bench just outside the stadium. The sun is warm and comforting on my skin. I feel the heat, and I bask in it like a reptile on a mountain top. It hasn’t yet dawned on me what it might feel like to run in this, today. For now, it is heavenly and I sit happily on our sunny bench and people watch whilst Gav goes for his 14th wee. I could sit here for many hours, but we have to go, soon. Shit! I’ve temporarily forgotten that the hard bit is still to come.

Our trek to the orange starting pen seems to take forever. I’m sure we’ve done an entire lap of the stadium, and time is ticking on. I look at my watch. 12:09 (1:09 in Dutch time).. the race begins at 12:20 (1:20 in Dutch time.) “Shit Gav, we’d best get a move on,” I say as Gav slopes off for yet another urination. I can’t hang about any longer, and so I give him a hurried kiss, and leave him to piss. I won’t see him again for quite some time.

The gun goes off and nothing happens, other than the steady trudge towards the starting line and the timing mats. I still feel relatively calm. Once at the mats, I begin to run and wonder why some other fuckwits aren’t doing the same. I have to dodge people and hop onto curbs to get past those who look like they haven’t yet realised where they are. “Fucking hell!” I say to myself out loud, as I skip around a 5”2 woman who is already walking.

 

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Artistic licence: this is the start of the marathon, not the half. But you get the gist…

The first few miles are steady, and a decent pace. I’m relieved. I check my watch frequently to make sure I’m not overcooking it, and flying off too fast. Gav warned me earlier – it’s easy to burn up in a half marathon and there’s a long way to go once you’ve used up all your juice. With that in mind, I reach mile 7 and still feel kind of ok.

But then it starts. My feet are fucking killing me! What’s going on with my shoes? I can feel searing pains in my toes and on the padded bits to the side of both feet. I haven’t experienced anything like this before – not since the Dubai marathon, that is. My feet feel sore and swollen, as though covered in bee stings or submerged in a tank filled with jelly fish. It’s then I realise – this is going to be a tough second half of the race. I piss in my shorts, and stop shortly after for a gel. If truth be told, I don’t honestly want to start running again, and I could happily pull off the course right there. But I don’t, because I can’t. Because I won’t. My feet still ache murderously with every step, but somehow I manage to keep a half decent pace. I’ve stopped dreaming of a good time now – I’m focused on survival.

The heat feels oppressive, and I douse water in myself at the next drinks station. I wonder where Gav is, and I wonder how his race is going. I miss him and contemplate pulling over for him and waiting, but I know that’s stupid. He can’t help me. No one can help me, now.

Suddenly, the miles stretch out ahead of me like a vast expanse of desert. My mouth feels dry, and I realise – it’s hot. It’s so fucking hot. The internal chatter begins. “How can you be struggling, here, Rach…” “why can’t you do this, Rach…” “how is this beating you, Rach…” and I think back to last weekend’s duathlon. I think back to that first, fast run, and the never ending comedy 24-mile cycle. I think back to how my body performed, and all it did for me, on that day. It was only 7 days ago. My inner chimp is reminded of the fact. “You’re lucky you can do this at all!” It is temporarily muted. “Your legs are still fucked from last weekend,” I say, trying to silence the hurtful, unhelpful mantra threatening to swim into my mind.

Every mile hurts now. “How have you ever managed to run a marathon, Rach?” I wonder. “How on earth can you possibly run one again?!” I don’t know. I just have to keep myself from stopping. My feet throb with pain, as fluid fills the delicate skin around my toes. I haven’t yet worked out that this is largely a result of today’s heat. I just think my trainers are shit and Ill-fitting. I want to take them off and throw them into one of the overflowing bins with banana skins cascading down the sides.

I hate the final miles. My head swirls with conflicting thoughts – thoughts that simply want to make me stop running and sit down.

Finally, we enter the Olympic stadium. There are another 150 metres to go. I look at my watch and I’m on for a fairly average – if slightly disappointing – time. Oh well, it’s almost over. My whirring mind can soon switch into fatigue mode, and then over analysis of my performance. At the moment, I can’t be arsed with either.

I cross the line and feel like I’ve run twice the distance. I limp slowly to collect my medal and half a banana, and I wonder where Gav is. How far behind is he? I stand by the barriers and watch other runners enter the stadium as I did just a few minutes earlier. Will Gav be one of them? I just don’t know. I begin to chat to a friendly Scott called Alan. He’s found the heat to be equally oppressive, and it robbed him of his previous PB of 1:38. He came in at 1:42. I tell him my time, and he looks impressed. I don’t want to mention that I’m disappointed. It seems unnecessarily rude and self-absorbed. He feels lightheaded and I suggest he goes outside the stadium to get some water. We both leave the stadium and I lose him in the crowd.

Where is Gav? I head to the baggage area and pick up our bag. I know he has no phone, money, or any other vaguely helpful items on him. I ask 12 people how I get to the “A” from the giant IAMAMSTERDAM letters we stood next to posing for photographs, yesterday. No one seems to know where it is, and I wonder why – the letters are ten feet tall. How can they go missing?

Eventually I find them. I sit and wait. Just by the A, as agreed. I post a message on Instagram notifying the world of my LOST HUSBAND. I don’t know why. It achieves nothing other than to worry my mum.

I sit and wait. And wait.

Echoes of Dubai 2016 fill my mind. I know the heat will have affected him today, as it did, then. Suddenly, I am worried. What’s happened? Can’t he find the ten-foot tall A? Why not? I have.

My phone dings and it’s Gav’s mum. “MEET GAV BY THE CHARITY TENTS.” I get up and slowly force my swollen feet back into my trainers. I now fucking hate them.

I walk to the charity tent and see Gav sitting on the curb. “What happened?” I ask him. It was the heat.

We head for a beer and sit on the grass. Every ten minutes the hum of chatter is interrupted by the sound of ambulance sirens. And we know then that a lot of people found it hard, today.

Back at the Loft apartment we sit in muted, tired silence contemplating our respective races. I check on Instagram and a few people have congratulated me on my efforts. And I get one message from a girl saying “You did a great time. You’re capable of much better, though.” I want to scream at her through my iPhone and tell her how fucking hard it was, today. I want to make her do last weekend’s duathlon, and then fly out here and race in soaring temperatures, seeing how she fares against her own PB.

Gav laughs and manages to calm me before I post a reply. I delete the selfie I’ve just taken sticking Vs up, and post something vaguely polite, instead.

I sit and take another swig of shit coffee from the little yellow mug I nicked from the Cool Cafe yesterday, and Gav laughs at the memory of me running away around the corner so not to get caught. Maybe that tired my legs…

What a weekend it’s been in the Dutch oven.

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Yes, I really did nick the mug. Shame on me.

The Dutch Oven – Amsterdam half marathon – Part 1

The sun is just beginning to fade as we check into our hotel early on Friday evening, where a 6’2 blonde Amazonian-looking woman welcomes us: “Hey, how goes it?’ she asks, sounding faintly American. “And also – Mr. and Mrs. Dudds – [she pronounces it ‘Duds’] You have a free room upgrade!” I look skeptically across at Gav. I’m too tired for mind games and purported “upgrades” which usually end up in our being allocated a pokey corner room overlooking the staff smoking area and recycling bins. Turns out there is no catch, and we’re shown to a loft studio apartment with our very own sun terrace overlooking the stunning Oosterpark. Result!

After a day’s travelling, and being entirely satiated with beige, plastic food, we head out and buy some supplies from a nearby shop. Amongst the Pringles and Milka chocolate bars (various flavours) is nestled an apple. “Would you like me to wash it for you?” the cashier asks. I slyly glance behind me to check for laughter on the off chance that this is a joke. Nobody is there. “Oh, erm that would be lovely. Thank you!” I say, momentarily stunned. I’d be lucky to get it rubbed clean on a Gregg’s tabard back at home.

Everybody here is so bloody friendly!” I declare to Gav, once back in our penthouse room with a view.

The next morning, the friendliness continues. “Hurdy gurdy” greets us at every corner. And then I realise – Ahh! That’s it, Gav! People think we’re Dutch!

I take it as a compliment – I’m thrilled that we don’t look like Brits. I put it down to my height, hair colour and the trusty plaits. Maybe that’s why they’re being so frickin’ nice… they think we belong here!

Parents look unflustered; mothers unharassed. Couples walk together in a comfortable silence – as far removed from their British counterparts who trudge ironically around Birstall’s Ikea in oppressed, unspoken misery. Cyclists move swiftly but they don’t look lost. They dance with the trams as pedestrians wait patiently for them to pass. There is a busy calm: Zen-like ants scurrying about on bikes with purpose. Are they Buddhist ants? Or just off their tits on pot? Either way, it matters not.

We arrive at the Expo and need to change our numbers from the full marathon to the half. “It’s no problem” says a calm, bespectacled Dutchman. He is entirely lacking in laboured huffs over bureaucratic form-filling necessities. “How fast do you run?” he asks, without judgment. We are over ambitions (especially so considering last weekend’s duathlon) and so Friendly Dutch Guy puts us in the 1:30-1:39 orange starting wave. I’m not sure he believes our predicted finishing times, but regardless – job done. Hurdy Gurdy!

I sit next to a British girl on the tram. She opens up a conversation. “Where have you travelled from?” She’s come from Devon, and it’s her first marathon. She seems chilled out, and we chat about race tactics and times. I feel embarrassed when she asks what times we’ve run marathons in before. Probably because I doubt that I could ever do so again. My response is met with impressed gasps and exclamations. “It was only a fluke,” I say, quickly. “Just had a good day, that’s all.” But then I remember that it wasn’t a fluke: I ran London in 3:17 the following April. Just 45 seconds slower than the 3:16 Yorkshire marathon “fluke”.

Gav is on feed up. He pays 3 euros for 10 tiny little pancakes smothered in butter and dusted in icing sugar. His eyes spin around in his head as the warm fat / sugar combo floods his system. Meanwhile, I’ve had a spending spree. A new racing cap and running vest are now mine. And I couldn’t resist posing for a photo next to the pop-up SKINS stall. I ask the 6”4 genetically superior assistant if he wouldn’t mind stepping to one side whilst I pose next to the cardboard promotional board. “I’ll send this through to my new mate, Jaimie,” I say confidently to Gav, before smiling gormlessly at the iPhone camera for the 50th time this morning. But I wimp out of tagging my new best friend into my self-absorbed propaganda, and thankfully it remains in the safety of Gav’s “never to be seen again” random adventure weekend away race photos.

My new marathon running friend from Devon tells us she’s getting off the tram at the next stop and heading to the Anne Frank museum with her fellow marathon running pals. Gav and I discuss the cultural options, but he’s hell bent on taking me on a walking tour of Chicks With Dicks in the centre of the town, instead. I’m fine with that. I’ve had a sheltered life.

We decide to walk instead of hopping on the tram with our new buddies. After a mile, I get grumpy. My legs hurt. As in, they’re aching to walk. “I’m ready for a sit down soon,” I say, trying to disguise my palpable anxiety at my increasingly painful limbs. How on earth am I going to run a half marathon tomorrow? I think to myself, the questions whirring around in my head on repeat shuffle. I don’t know the answer. I can’t numb the leg aches or silence the fears swimming around in my mind. I don’t honestly know how they can run 13 miles at any kind of decent pace, tomorrow. Last weekend’s duathlon efforts almost broke me, and I haven’t been inclined to run again since. So, what will happen tomorrow? I simply can’t imagine.

After ambling past a handful of fat prostitutes* looking bored in sex shop windows, we finally make it to Anne Frank’s house. I feel my heart sink as it’s plain to see that the corporate world has taken her legacy and shoehorned it into some queue-forming, money-spinning tourist-enticing fly paper. How many of those trudging slowly forward in the meandering, snaking line have read her book? I wonder. How many of them even know what they’re queuing for? We cross the road and walk away dejected, as I take one last look around and muse: is this a view she saw? Surely this must be a view she saw, at some time. “Did the Nazis come and take over the entire city?” I ask Gav. I want to know the history. I want to know what happened. I vow to re-read her book when I get home: rather that than queue up for 40 minutes next to the Anne Frank Waffle House. I think Anne would understand.

We eventually sit down outside a bohemian cafe perched on the very edge of Sexual Deviance Square. I’m relieved to finally rest my aching limbs, and I sit down to write. I tap away quietly on my iPad making observations of the surreal pot-scented surroundings. It gives me some comfort as my whirring mind can focus on the words, and not on the busyness or the tourist-fuelled madness. Gav is happy enough. He’s ordered the largest club sandwich which has come with deep fried crunchy fries just like ones my dad used to get from Birds Nest Chinese take away when I was ten. I sip on a hot chocolate from a small, mustard yellow mug. I don’t know why but I want to take it home as a souvenir. The mug probably costs less than the price I’ve paid for my hot chocolate.

*one of the sex workers is texting on an iPhone whilst flaunting her ample wares in the shop window. I wonder – who is she texting? Her husband, perhaps? “Have you taken that chicken out the freezer?” Or a friend? “Hey, what you up to? Just at work. It’s a bit nippy today.” Maybe it’s to her daughter. “Do your homework, Alice. I’ll be back before bed.” Either way she looks sad and bored. Even her tits sag listlessly as though they’re fed up of life itself.

Anyway, it’s time for bed. It’s race day, tomorrow.

TO BE CONTINUED…