It was an ordinary November afternoon; wet, chilly and already darkening at 3 pm. Lunchtime had disappeared in a welter of patient visits and phone calls; now I was running late but how could I tell the woman in front of me that her time was up?
She was a shy seeming, middle- aged lady with a white face and rain- flattened hair, bulging carrier bags at her feet; the kind of woman you would sit next to in a bus without a second glance. She had come with tiredness but the story that unfolded was devastating. Her beautiful, brilliant teenage son had died suddenly the year before from an unexpected cardiac arrhythmia; his handicapped twin was deteriorating from a chronic neurological condition. I wondered as I listened, how she managed to shoulder her crushing loss and keep going. I kept in touch with her; the routine detective work of general practice was helpful as it turned out. Her pale face was no coincidence; blood tests revealed anaemia so I investigated and treated that, but her story stayed with me.
I began to see loss everywhere; in all the stories patients brought. The loss associated with depression, with heart disease, failing eyesight, a broken arm. The many subtle ways in which ageing takes things away and the means by which life can disappoint: job loss, fertility worries and marriage problems.
As my children were young adults by now, along with General Practice, I began to study for a Diploma in Creative writing at Bristol University. I wanted to explore the universality of loss and the grief which follows and so the story of “The Daughter” was born.
Jenny, the protagonist in the novel, believes she has lost everything that defines her: her daughter, her family life, marriage and job; her life unravels and she retreats. As the novel progressed, I began to explore beyond grief, realising that the most extraordinary stories concerned the way in which people coped and kept going despite loss: buying the bread, emptying the washing machine and putting out the rubbish. Day after day after day. How my patients coped defined them more than loss did, and ultimately, it seemed that loss contained the seeds of renewal.
That theme is itself buried like a seed in the heart of the novel: Jenny starts a circular painting of seeds to flowers to fruit and seed again. My intention was to write a book which would leave the reader with the hope that life renews, seeding itself elsewhere.
A story needs a plot and readers have to want to turn the page: so I used my own fears to connect with the often unspoken anxieties we all share about our nearest and dearest. What if our children went missing? What if they had secrets, dangerous ones that we didn’t know about? What if they never came home?
These are the questions that drive the story of The Daughter which began a while ago, in one ordinary afternoon in my surgery.
You can buy your copy of The Daughter here.