In February 1997 I experienced a moment of the purest exultation I have known. I was standing on a Mexican beach at the time, looking out to sea, feeling the ebb of silky warm water pulling and pushing the sand from under my toes. I was thirty-six – healthy, strong, tanned – on a wonderful second honeymoon with my husband. The struggle of early mothering was past, my career was taking shape, every single person I cared for in the world was alive and well. For those few precious seconds time itself seemed to slow to a standstill, much – I decided later – as a rollercoaster pauses at the crest of a steep climb, when all that’s left is the fall.
The following morning there was a phone call from England. The girl looking after our sons, unused to the dodgems of the South Circular, had crashed the car. The boys, thank heavens, were okay - as was she, apart from whiplash and being deeply, understandably, unnerved. It was a reminder that the world wasn’t safe, but I was still too euphoric to feel threatened. It was a near miss, I reasoned, the sort that happened to people who were born lucky. People like me. I went for a run along the beach that day, pushing myself to new limits, ignoring a twinge in the ball of my right foot.
By the time we got back to England the twinge had developed into a deep, permanent pain. Total rest the physio ordered, as if normal life - two lively schoolboys, shopping, laundry, work – could be airbrushed from the scene. I hobbled on, through vicious jet-lag and a new source of discomfort – deep inside my jaw this time, as if someone was sliding a skewer through my gums.
Phoning my mother to report on my idyll of a holiday, I discovered that my father had been ill. Nothing to worry about, she assured me. Just a bad cold, which had gone to his chest – as it always did because of his smoking. A few days in hospital had seen him right. My father himself took over the phone to make light of the matter, making me laugh as he always did. A few days later one of his hilarious letters arrived, bowing out of my imminent book launch festivities on the grounds that he was bound to offer inappropriate responses to people who might otherwise feel inclined to advance his daughter’s career.
My foot heeled and the roots of my aching tooth were seen to by a dentist. We bought tickets for Lords and accepted an invitation to an extravagant 50th for the same weekend. Life was getting back on track, as it always did.
On the day of the party my father was readmitted to hospital. He had had a terrifying few minutes of not being able to breathe, my mother reported, but was now fine, being kept in for a couple of days, simply as a precaution. I deliberated long and hard. A hospital visit would mean missing the party. I had a pretty new frock and kitten heels. Champagne, dancing…with my recent ailments I felt badly in need of both.
But at the last minute I found myself phoning to pull out, explaining to the host the new priority of visiting a sick parent. Receiving only frosty attempts to change my mind (I was to have been seated next to Geoffrey Archer! I would ruin the seating plan!) I set off on my visit with new resolve.
I took with me three small pots of honey – a recently acquired and unlikely favourite food, which my father unwrapped with the humorous reverence he reserved for any gift, no matter how small. His movements were noticeably slow, but he looked well, I decided - sitting not in bed but in a chair by the window, wearing his usual tartan dressing gown, his thin, still sandy brown hair smoothed neatly, his blue eyes twinkling behind the thick lens of his glasses. We had lovely time, talking gently, merrily, of the merits of honey, and tennis and sunshine. I didn’t mention Geoffrey Archer and was glad of it, driving back up the A3 afterwards, under amassing rain clouds, with my supposedly mended tooth throbbing again, like the tick of a silent clock.
At Lords the next day it rained so consistently that not a single ball was played. We got home late, stiff, tired, my tooth on fire once more. It was almost midnight when the phone rang. And when I heard my mother’s voice I knew at once what she would say: Dad, due to be discharged the following morning, had died a few minutes after she had left for home.
That night I saw again and again the slow, deeply careful swivel of my father’s head as he had turned to greet me in the hospital – understanding at last how ill he had been, how hard he had been fighting not to show it. I saw too – with rage - the woman who had stood on the shifting Yucatan sands a few weeks and a lifetime before, daring to be happy, daring to forget that life was fragile, and a minefield; that heights of joy derive meaning only from the abysses waiting on the other side.