“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E. L. Doctorow
It was New Year’s Eve when I got in my car, wild-eyed with grief and fatigue, my tiny baby in the back, and drove the 200 miles from Manchester to South Wales. I had breasts full of milk, no money in my purse and no real clue where I was going. I trusted that the cranky old Sat Nav someone had given me would take me there.
I’d recently learned that my husband, my playmate and soulmate for as long as I could remember, had fallen in love with someone else when I was pregnant – that he was still in love, and no longer with me. I told him to go. He wanted to go. I knew that I’d be bringing up our son pretty much alone, though I didn’t fully understand then what that would mean or on what kind of journey I was about to embark. On his leaving, I’d taken a horrified intake of anxious breath and was still yet to exhale.
Earlier that year, we’d made a plan to spend New Year with old friends in a cottage in South Wales. When I’d called to cancel, explaining what had happened, they begged me to go anyway. I needn’t worry about paying for the room, or about anything. “Just come,” they said, “and we’ll take care of you both.”
It was early evening before I finally decided to make the trip. A new driver, I was afraid of unknown roads, of hazards, of roundabouts, of parking. Mostly, I was afraid of other cars. Scared of anything and everything outside of what had been until then my small, comfortable sphere of existence. I packed a few things in the boot and bundled my sleeping baby boy into the car seat in the back. I sang us all the way down the motorway. I sang lullabies and nursery rhymes and every song I knew from memory, just hoping he wouldn’t wake. I sang to soothe my baby and I sang to calm my anxious heart, which since my husband had left had been chasing around my chest like a small panicked animal trying to get out.
When, after three hours of driving, my son woke to feed and wouldn’t settle, I pulled over in a layby on an unlit, icy road in Snowdonia and, surrounded on all sides by dark snowy mountains, I held him to my breast and soothed him to milky bliss, feeling awed, as I did every time, by the things my body knew how to do.
I settled him back in his seat and took out my ‘phone to let my friends know that it would be a while before we got there. There was no signal. And as I started tentatively back on the icy road, I realised there was no signal on my Sat Nav either. Nothing telling me where to go or how to get there. I inched along the icy roads with only my headlights and the gleam from the snowy mountains to guide me.
As I drove along the dark unknown roads, I felt that I was further from home than I’d ever been, but also closer to it than I’d ever been too. I was cold, lost, vulnerable and somehow powerful beyond measure. Singing my fear away, I realised that the small, panicked animal had calmed and a new feeling had settled in my chest. I’ve since come to recognise that feeling as courage. I know now that I’d never felt it until then. I’d been lucky enough to never have to. And it was nothing like I thought it would feel. It had nothing to do with guts – it was all heart.
I arrived at the cottage just before midnight. Having guessed at signs and junctions for miles, the Sat Nav kicked in in the last five minutes, guiding me through the last of the small, dark lanes. My friends took one look at me on the doorstep, my baby in my arms, and a strange look, no doubt, in my eyes, and they bundled us into the house with kindness and put us straight to bed. They did not wish me a Happy New Year, and that was a kindness too. “We gave you the nicest room,” they said, as they settled me and my still-sleeping baby into the huge feather bed with the crispest, whitest sheets I’d ever seen.
The next day, we walked on the beach in St. David’s and talked about it all. As we stood to rest and look out to sea, there came from the beach huts behind us the sound of frantic footsteps and we turned to see what seemed like hundreds of people, thundering down the hill towards us and then past us, whooping and laughing and unsettling the soft white sand. They raced for the freezing water as though their lives depended on it. When they reached it, they plunged in, some of them holding hands, some of them alone, some of them in wetsuits and – did I imagine this? – some of them naked. They cried out as the New Year met them with a shock and a slap of icy water on bare skin. I wish I could say that I joined them, but I didn’t. Not that time anyway. What I did do, though, was breathe in the sea-salty air and, finally, with relief, exhale.
Marie Crook writes poetry and creative nonfiction and performs her work regularly in and around Manchester. Her PhD The Writing Cure (York, 2003) was concerned with the relationship between life-writing and psychoanalysis, something she continues to explore in her work. A Digital Producer for BBC Education, she creates online content to support young people with life-skills and she’s written and adapted over 30 children’s books for the Penguin Young Readers series. She’s working on a memoir.
Photo by Chris Neufeld-Erdman