I could have picked a better time to go away. The groceries I had ordered hadn’t arrived, and the meals I had planned to leave for them hadn’t been prepared. My family – husband, 5 year old son, 2 year old daughter – would have to fend for themselves. I imagined them eating junk all weekend – pizzas, burgers, endless sugar. And they weren’t in the peak of health either. My son had a cold, and my daughter was in the middle of potty training. The cold could be dealt with, but it was the potty training that really worried me. I was certain my husband would buckle under the pressure of accidents, dirty laundry and our daughter’s tears, and that he would soon have her back in nappies.
‘Don’t worry,’ said my husband, as I packed. ‘We’ll be fine’.
I closed my eyes with dread. I would have my weekend’s break to write in, but I fretted I would return to baby armegeddon. I imagined soiled carpets; unwashed dishes; my children noxious from too much sugar and too much TV.
And then I left. After about an hour, I checked in on things at home. They were sitting around the kitchen table, eating fruits and reading a story. So far, so good, I thought.
I got to my station. My phone reception started waning. I reached the retreat I was booked in to for three nights, and here too, there was no reception. There was some internet access, so I could keep in touch with my loved ones, and a landline where they called me once a day, but that was it. No mobile reception; no texts; no endless Twitter updates. No keeping in touch with everyone. I grumbled for a while, but in hindsight, this communication blackout was the biggest boon to me.
For better or worse, the members of my family were shackled to each other. They would survive a few days without me. In any case, there was nothing I could do about it.
I set to work. My lovely hosts Deb and Bob at Retreats for You took care of everything. Forget helping lay the table, we were actively – and assertively – discouraged from even tidying away our dirty plates. We got three generous meals a day as well as far too many sweet treats. All food preferences were catered for. On my stay, there were coeliacs, vegans, and mere eccentrics like me – eating chicken and fish but no red meat – and Deb somehow managed to cater for all our requirements. There was a roaring fire in the living room; there were hot water bottles in our beds at night. There was good wine and stimulating company at night, and we were free to have our meal served in our room if the muse proved intractable. There was a library filled with books, our clothes were washed for us and our jugs of water automatically refilled. There were bracing walks at our doorstep if we needed inspiration.
All our needs were taken care of, and all we needed to do was to write. In the beginning, it was hard. I found I had the attention span of a goldfish, and I suppose our lifestyles – with a million competing demands on our attention – are to blame. I always thought I was good at multi-tasking, but perhaps I was sacrificing my focus. Now though, I had no distraction. No excuse not to work. Not one single one.
So I wrote. Haltingly at first, but then with increasing fluency. I went for walks, I ate too much, and I finally sorted out the plot of a novel that has been inhabiting my consciousness for the best part of a year. I now know my protagonists’ names. I know what they look like; I know how they interact with each other. I know what drives them.
For my new knowledge of this world of my creation, my eternal thanks go to the gracious team of Deb and Bob. They allowed me space to escape my worries and to inhabit my characters’ worlds. They let me loose on their house in a dressing gown and slippers, and they let me imagine for four heady, treasured days.
And my children? They had a blast. They went to the park, practised their tennis, spent time with their father. They did eat more junk food than I’d like, but then it was a break for them too. And my daughter is still out of her nappies. There have been accidents, but everyone has survived. And as for me, I’ve been able to breathe in my book’s air, and that is worth more than I can ever express.