When my son was a baby, at exactly this time of year, I was pushing his pram along one of our village roads. Horse chestnuts had started to litter the pavements and random apple trees were tossing their fruit to the ground like little missiles. It was late September, autumn at its prettiest. On the opposite side of the road two figures were engaged in conversation: one a man in middle age, the other younger, in motor-cycle clothes. As baby and I approached, they hugged, the boy donned his helmet, fired up his engine and the bike pulled away. The older man stood on the pavement, watching his son vanish.
‘Off to university,’ he called to me. ‘First time away from home.’
I’d never seen this man before, but I saw his need to share, even with a stranger, the strength of emotion he was feeling. His entire world had shifted, his son had gone.
‘Tug at the heart-strings,’ I replied, feeling for him in that moment. My own son, who’d taken so long to arrive, who’d become so indescribably precious, would one day be riding off into the sunset, hopefully not on a high-powered bike. In eighteen years I would be like this man, standing alone, fighting back tears, hoping that pain in my chest wasn’t my heart breaking. I walked on with a smile, pushing the stranger’s distress to the back of my mind, telling myself that eighteen years is a very long time.
Eighteen years is no time at all. Tomorrow we drive our beloved son Hal to his new life at Durham university and our own will never be the same again. He’ll visit, of course, for weeks at a time, but will be changed, a new man, with a life independent from ours. As the time has drawn ever closer, I’ve shut the inevitability of his departure from my mind. Face the pain I must, but not now. Not when there are clothes to be bought, bags to be packed, textbooks to be brought down from the loft, when every piece of maternal advice I’ve neglected for eighteen years has to be given, and in such a way that it’ll be taken with good humour. Not when I have to buy provisions, agree budgets, organise last minute treats and make sure he says a proper goodbye to all who wish him well.
At the same time, I’ve had to make progress on a new book, do copy-edits on That Summer, put the finishing touches to an anthology of short stories and plan for the paperback launch of The Split. I cannot do all that and grieve, and so the grieving has been on hold.
When people ask how I’ll cope I say, ‘Fine. He’s ready.’ And he is. He needs the fresh challenge of university life. He has outgrown us and his old world. He needs to make his own mistakes and find his own triumphs, away from our protection. What is happening tomorrow is right, for all of us, and that must surely help when the pain of loss comes.
I only have one real, flesh and blood child, but I’ve given birth to a few fictional ones over the years and I’m no stranger to the struggle to let go. Not yet, let me flesh out a character, polish some dialogue, add the perfect descriptive sentence. As structural edits become line edits, copy edits and then proofs, irritating mistakes appear as if by malevolent magic. When I re-read my old books (I rarely do) I see so much that I would change, given the chance.
And yet there comes a time to let go. Publishing schedules are serious; deadlines not to be taken lightly. JK Rowling, upon finishing the last Harry Potter book, said, ‘That’s it. It’s as good as I can make it.’ Authors have to know when we’ve reached that stage, when our books must stand or fall without us. And so, as I say goodbye to Hal, I do the same with That Summer. One of my problem children, it and I will never have an entirely comfortable relationship, and yet others, whose views I respect, believe it has promise and so I must trust in them, and it, and let it go.
PS: It’s done, we’re back, without him. Run swiftly, my darling boy, for you are fleet of foot and great of heart. Know that we are here always, your loudest, most embarrassing cheerleaders. You are our pride, our joy and our greatest achievement. We love you. Don’t drink too much.