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

 

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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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Duathlon Virgin Pops Her Cherry

I’m a road cycling virgin – or at least I was until very recently when I purchased my very first second-hand speed machine from a guy at work. Cleats? Are those like vaginal warts? Derailleurs? French for train track? So, completing the Oulton Park Duathlon yesterday felt like a hell of an achievement. I entered it on a whim a couple of months ago when the realisation hadn’t yet fully hit that I’d have to at least pretend to know what I’m doing on a road bike. Fake it ‘til you make it? Yep. That’s me. 

I chose to enter the Standard distance race. This would be a 9k run + 39k bike + 4.5k run. The alternative was a shorter Sprint distance (4.5k run + 21k bike + 4.5k run) ‘Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound’, was my exact thought process whilst choosing the longer distanced race. If it’s going to hurt for 21km on an uncomfortable, unfamiliar set of wheels, then what difference is an additional 18km going to make? (hashtag: ‘ignoranceisbliss’). 

Gav and I have revelled in some mini-victories in the run-up to this unlikely feat. We have: 

  • Bought bikes; 
  • Equipped ourselves with a bicycle pump and some other basic maintenance equipment which we have absolutely no idea how to use (we have enough allen keys to make all necessary adjustments to the Eiffel tower, and yet raising my seat half an inch is a bridge too far.) 
  • Invested in a fancy bike carrier for the car. One entire Saturday afternoon was recently sacrificed as we wrestled to marry my Nissan Juke with the various wires / arms / straps and contraptions contained within the neatly packaged Thule box. It drizzled mockingly as we stood in hung silence watching instructional YouTube videos on repeat. 

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wear my cleats on Sunday for the race, Gav I declared to my endlessly supportive husband as he stood in the kitchen trying to work out how to gain access to the fridge which was entirely blocked by my now upturned Scott road bike. ‘It’s not worth the risk, and surely I won’t be the only one pedalling in trainers?’ 

‘Course not!’ he replied, still unable to access the milk. 

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‘Can’t you do without the milk, Gav?’

Once my Scott bike was sufficiently adhered to the car boot, the three of us headed off to Oulton Park racetrack on Sunday morning.  

No sooner had we parked up and enjoyed the relief of our compulsory thank-fcuk-we’ve-arrived-at-destination-and-escaped-from-the-car toilet stop than a tall chap in a hoody approached with a beaming smile. ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ he said. I looked nonplussed at the approaching stranger, and then across at Gav. ‘The Deer Park dash!’ he said, as if this would make it any easier.  

Not a Scooby Do.  

‘Oh yeah!’ I lied. ‘The Deer Park Dash!! Of course!’ I said, as though repeating the race back to him were indeed confirmation that I had any kind of recollection of our exchange. ‘I was running with the pram? he continued, as my vacant look didn’t go unnoticed. Lovely chap. Still no idea. 

We stood at the back of our car next to the bondaged bike and the four of us – me, Gav, Friendly Hoody Man and his wife – talked turkey about race tactics. ‘It’s the last run that’s a killer,’ friendly hoody man says. ‘Your legs are like jelly. You want to run, but your legs have turned to mush.’ I didn’t want to tell him that the running parts were the bits I was actually looking forward to. ‘Just keep up a good cadence on the bike, and you can make up a lot of time with a decent cycling section.’ 

Bollocks.  

I looked at my bike, still gagged and bound to the back end of our Juke, and it suddenly felt like an alien to me. In that moment I realised – I don’t know it very well at all. I haven’t worked out how it feels most comfortable, or what gears it prefers. I haven’t taken the time to oil its chain or to lube the intricate parts. It doesn’t know my correct seat height, and the pedals and I muddle along in some persistent misunderstanding. I bought an entire set of allen keys, and yet the seat still chafes parts of me that only my husband knows. We are complete strangers.  

I wheeled my reluctant partner, Scott, into the transition area.  

Could I just safety check your bike please, madam?’ a necessarily efficacious gentleman said as I approached in my gormless state. ‘Do you know that you’ve got an end bar missing? ‘ he went on, pointing to a part of Scott I’d never seen. ‘I’m going to have to tape it up, as I’d hate for you to impale yourself on the course if you had a collision.’ Oh. Right. Yep. ‘And your tyres seem a bit low. In fact – bloody hell – these won’t last nine laps, love. Take it to the guy over there and he’ll sort you out.’ 

I trundled my non-friendly alien, Scott, over to another younger gentleman who winced when he felt the skinny rubber surrounding my wheels. ‘It’s a good job you’re here!’ I joked nervously.  

He didn’t laugh. 

After an informative safety briefing, we were off and I set off running confidently on my own two feet. Yesss! I know how to do this, I thought, as I soon passed a number of pro-looking tri-suited bodies on the first lap of the two-lap section. My pace was controlled but fast, and I felt good. I felt strong. No technical malfunctions possible, other than the obvious shoelaces or legs falling off. With no evidence of either, I arrived into the first transition entirely happy with the first running section.  

Remember to put your helmet on before you take your bike off the rack, I recalled the wise words of Friendly Hoody guy and stuck my Halfords lid* straight on my head before inhaling a gel and pushing my bike out into the traffic lane. Shit. I’ve got to hop onto the bloody thing, now. 

For the first lap, we took some time getting to know one another. It tried to mould to me, whilst I squirmed about on the impossibly narrow saddle and wondered if my marriage would survive nine laps of potentially irreparable damage to sensitive female areas. Fuck! My foot slipped from the non-cleated pedal and the wheels spun round at some speed, catching me on both shins. Fuck, fuck FUCK! I wrestled my Adidas Boost trainers back onto the slippery silver pedals and wrenched the handlebars back under control to avoid face-planting on the race track. I looked around me. No one else was cycling in Adidas Boosts. NO ONE ELSE IS PEDALLING IN FUCKING TRAINERS, RACHEL. Wait! Oh look! A girl over there is, and she’s a shit cyclist too! I felt like cycling over to her and making friends, but she didn’t look to be in the mood for chatting.  

Lap 3 and I felt sure my future was one of celibacy. I could see nothing through my entirely unnecessary Rudy Project sunglasses, and wind whipped snot across my face like a sad, sleeveless child. I looked up and saw Gav and Tilly up in the stand for the fifth time. ‘TAKE HER INSIDE IT’S PISSING IT DOWN’ I hollered across to Gav who stood looking perplexed at the unexpected instruction whilst I attempted to ‘maintain a good cadence’ on my alien bike. For the remaining seven laps, they took my advice, and were nowhere to be seen.** 

There were hills on the course. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I began to think I could manage to remain seated on my ill-fitting bike for what may feel like an eternity, they threw two significant inclines on the track for good measure. And just as I was attempting to lower my gear for the 5th time, I heard an emphatic ‘Keep going, Rachel! Keep pushing!’ from behind. For a millisecond I was transported back to the delivery room of Calderdale Royal Hospital in late September 2010, but a quick glance to my right and Friendly Hoody man came flying past me, clearly making up time on his cycle, just as he’d predicted. Fucking hell. 

The remaining cycle laps were a feat of a certain kind of endurance I’ve never experienced before. Like balancing on a thin, moving beam praying for the moment when it would all end.  

Approaching the second transition, I felt no fear about the second run. Legs tired? Of course. A bit wobbly? Yeah, sure. Desperate to get off the fucking bike? YES! YES. THAT! I hopped off the bike like a slightly drunken vagrant heading off to his last pub of the night. Right: Hang bike on rack? Check. Inhale a gel? Check. Right. Now RUN, RUN, FUCKING RUN!  

‘Wait! You’ve still got your helmet on!’ I heard Gav and Tilly bellow from the barriers as I headed towards the transition exit. Oh, for the love of God. I turned on my heels and handed my No Frills non-aerodynamic Halford’s lid to a very helpful fellow athlete, and ran off, as far away from my fucking Scott bike as was humanly possible. That was motivation enough for me. 

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I. love. tarmac.

‘Great running!’  one semi-limping guy said as I skipped past him on my final lap of the track, feeling the thrill of my Adidas Boosts on terra firma. The last mile felt tough on the final climb up to the finish, but it was over soon enough. 

Approaching the finish line after a cold, wet, tiring and uncomfortable 2 hours and 24 minutes, I could see Gav and Tilly – both perfectly dry and warm – cheering for me as I raised my thoroughly feeble arms in the air whilst attempting to look mildly victorious.  

‘WELL DONE, MUMMY!’ Tilly said, pawing at my medal and blatantly eyeing up my CLIF peanut butter bar. ‘You did REALLY well… But why were you so slow on the bike?’ 

Thanks, Tills. The adoption papers are being processed at the time of writing. 

 

*I can call it this, now I’m officially a #cyclingwanker 

**I subsequently discovered that they were neither cold nor pissed wet through, and my unnecessary hollers had simply caused them to fall about laughing. ‘The other cyclists must have thought you’re mental!’ were Gav’s exact words.