It was on a cold, dark night three years ago that our car skidded on black ice.
I was driving. The kids were sitting in the back and I was only doing about 35 miles per hour when we turned the corner on a road which, unbeknownst to me, hadn’t seen the sun all day. Either side of the lane towered trees which grew on the site of the Battle of Crogen which had been fought in the valley in 1165. The Great Oak of the Gate of the Dead was within yards of our own twenty-first century crash site.
Had it not been for the barrier that our little black car hit, we probably would have ended up in the River Ceiriog which was swollen by rainfall on the other side.
As the steering wheel strained in my hands, I heard Tom say ‘Be careful’, and my daughter scream while the voice in my head said ‘Let go’. It felt counter-intuitive to let go of a steering wheel when all I wanted to do was to control the direction of the car, but, in that instant, I recalled a conversation I’d had with a good friend of mine about an accident he was in many years ago...
He was twenty years-old, driving in the fast lane of a motorway, his baby daughter in the seat next to him. His car started to shudder and then seemingly jackknife. Then the vehicle span across lanes of traffic travelling at seventy-plus miles per hour. In his hands, the steering wheel was pulling one way, while he was pulling it in another. He told me that in that moment, he knew that the best possible course of action was to let go. To let the car take its own course.
And so, as our small black Panda swerved across the icy lane on a quiet country lane just outside Chirk, I, too, let go of the steering wheel. The car hit the crash barrier, span a full 180 degrees again and ended up, stationary, facing the direction from which we’d just come, the engine still running.
My first thoughts, as we sat, numb, facing the opposite direction were not: ‘Thank God we’re alive,’ or ‘Are the kids OK?’, but more in the vein of ‘I can’t die yet, because I haven’t finished my novel.’
And that is why I write.
Because it is more essential to me, it would seem, than a pulse.
Within two months of the incident on the ice, I finished the first draft of What a Way to Go. I wrote as if my life depended on it, because now I knew that it did.
And I owe this passion for writing to my Grandfather, the author Ken Forster, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday today. I still don’t feel strong enough to write much about him, so I have side-stepped the task by pasting below my little tribute to him which I wrote at the time of his death, in 2013:
“Tobacco smoke wafted down the street towards me today, and I was taken straight back to Grandpa’s downstairs office on Scholes Park Road in Scarborough, where, as a child, I would sit at his feet, stuffing tobacco down his pipe ready for his ‘smoko’, and making men out of stiff, white pipe cleaners.
To me, Grandpa was his office. Those familiar with it will recall it well: the green and beige-tiled fireplace upon which quietly grew a plant with its delicate, tiny leaves which curled slowly as you ran your fingers along it; the brass scales balancing on the windowsill, the weights from which he wedged on window catches in a gentle attempt to deter burglars; and, of course, his trusty typewriter which would fill the house with tapping like the reassuring ticking of a clock.
Grandpa would often allow me to sit in his wheely chair while he pushed me across the room, ruffling the rugs, so that I could collect various items and trinkets as if buying them from imaginary shops. I was never happier in Scholes Park Road than when ‘buying’ a bundle of paper clips, a rare postmark from Scandinavia and a coffee mat with a smiley face on it.
Grandpa’s quixotic and unparalleled collection of postmarks from continents across the world provided material for him to write for a living and nourished his life-long interest in the world’s people and places. Of course, Grandpa couldn’t have written a word without Gran’s love, support and care. They were an amazing team, bound by love and over sixty years of marriage.
Grandpa was an incredibly sensitive, caring and humble man; he radiated joy and laughter, and could charm anything with a heartbeat. That trademark sparkle in his eyes was still present when I saw him in Bournemouth just a few days before he died. Some of his final words to me were, ‘I have tried to take care of you.’ Grandpa, you took care of each and every one of us; your exceptional heart was infinite in its capacity to love. I’ll miss you terribly, but I shall cherish the many hours of laughter we shared and I’ll never forget all that you taught me.”
Happy Birthday, Grandpa.