My very first trip abroad was to the United Arab Emirates, back when the glitziness of modern Dubai was barely a twinkle in someone’s eye. I was a solo traveller and everything about my journey was new and exciting.
Fast forward several years. Travel had to be planned with military precision, necessary to ensure the safety and comfort of two children plus myself and spouse. Other people needed things and I provided them, whether an acceptable snack or a favourite toy. My needs sat at the bottom of the list.
As the kids grew, I took them further afield; America, Morocco, Mexico, Australia. There were places I wanted to see, and people tend to disapprove of leaving your kids home alone. So I brought them along, visited zoos and aquaria and water parks, and compromised on the cultural bit I enjoyed because kids get bored. Bored kids are a particular nightmare abroad, cooped up in a single hotel room.
Going solo seemed an impossible dream in a future too far away. But the future has a habit of appearing suddenly, here in the present.
My recent trip to the US was my first solo longhaul journey in a long time. Despite the irksome immigration formalities I wrote about here, I was excited to go. When you become a mother, you lose yourself as an individual. All is submerged in the identity of family.
No matter how you fight against it, the world sees you as mother first and last. Western society is hardly child-friendly, and you are responsible for making sure that nobody suffers just because you have offspring.
Can’t you stop that baby crying?
Please control your child, his running around like that is annoying me.
You shouldn’t feed them that.
Video games all the time, no good for developing brains. What’s wrong with books?
In my day…
I did my time, got the T shirt, and now I can sympathise while parents struggle to deal with children who are just being children. Yes, babies cry on take-off. They aren’t able to knock back a couple drinks or a Xanax to take the edge off like you did. Yes, the parent would stop them if they could. I won’t add to the disapproving glances that only multiply the stress of family travel.
Managing your children plus the expectations of everyone around you is exhausting. But staying home for eighteen years was not an option. As a bonus, my (grown) children are well travelled and able to cope with the inevitable hiccups of delays and missed connections. They are equipped for their own adventures.
All by myself
Now I can wander round shops if I want, read a whole novel, go to the restroom alone. At my destination, I can stay up and write during a jetlagged night, visit museums and gardens and art galleries. I can take off on a whim in an Uber without deferring to the majority vote. I never have to visit another water park.
It’s a process, seeing my freedom to decide as pleasing myself rather than being selfish. But it was so liberating that I’m already planning my next solo trip.
There is much joy in visiting Roman ruins with someone who really wants to see them; me, myself and I.
I’m travelling to the US, for the first time in over a decade. And travelling there alone, for the first time in much longer. The America we see now from news and tweets is a confusing and worrying place. While I know rationally that things will be fine, that the friends and family I will see are good people, that most people are good people, I cannot help but feel a prickle of anxiety. I also know that bad things happen even when you follow the rules.
Enhanced security at airports is annoying but routine now. We know the drill; liquids, laptop, shoes, belts. Everything is organised and moves efficiently. It’s hard to remember when it was any different.
I travelled back from the US with my family a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Security was a ramped up, disorganised mess of extra screening for suitcases and lines that were hours long. We arrived in good time but still had to be pulled from the line because our flight to London was about to close. Two hours standing with increasingly fractious young children, and increasingly anxious passengers all around. Uncertainty hung thick in the air like smoke. Fear settled in the pit of my stomach and took root there. But we got home safe.
The next year, we took a short internal flight from San Diego to LA, for a connecting flight. The timing was tight. My husband, travelling on an Irish passport, was singled out for a random check. The first time, it was a surprise. I went through security with my children without a hitch.
He was asked to step to the side, remove his belt and shoes, go through the scanner again. He was frisked. His carry-on was searched thoroughly. When I lingered I was told brusquely to get on the plane, ma’am. Time was ticking away, the little plane was waiting. I got on and held my children close. I assured them that Daddy would be right there, and the plane would wait for him, and it would be fine. My voice shook and I smiled a lie to soothe my anxious daughter. I willed them to release him and I didn’t know if they would, or what I would do if they closed the doors.
For the first time, I was afraid.
He made it with minutes to spare. We were both shaken, but we got used to it when it happened again, and again. Repetition does that. The thing we fear loses its sting with repeated exposure, until it’s mere annoyance and then finally, we become indifferent.
This time, security checks go smoothly. I empty the water bottle in my carry-on. I have my ESTA. I expect biometrics and customs forms. I have my destination address memorised. I exhale and try not to sweat despite the heat and the fact it’s three a.m. London time and I’ve been awake twenty hours straight and I’m a bit low on blood sugar and I have done nothing wrong.
Rationally, I know everything is fine. But I can’t shake the feeling that I’m suspect, not really welcome anymore.
Hey, we’re off to the pub. Coming? Sure. Why not.
Football scores. Office politics. The girl in the corner wearing blue.
Nothing to say. Sips a beer. No response to desperate glances.
Must be getting home or there’ll be hell to pay, right? Right.
He is at work. Friday comes.
TGIF, am I right? Right.
She’s got my weekend booked up, shopping and a BBQ, groan. You? Nothing much.
Three beers and Netflix. Pizza delivery. Quiet bed.
He is at work. Monday comes.
So busy this weekend, didn’t have a minute to myself. How about you? Oh, you know. Quiet.
You’re lucky, time to yourself. Yes. Lucky me.
Friday can’t come quick enough, am I right? Right.
He is quiet. No trouble. No drama.
No sun. Engulfed by eternal cloud, muffled, numb.
Rain drips icy fingers down his neck, freezing his bones.
Invisible, lost, a lone wolf.
Teeth ripping at his own heart.
A final scream, choked. Unheard.
None to sing his elegy.
Characters have a life of their own — or they should. Most writers know the feeling of writing something that seemed to come from the mouth of their creation, bypassing the writer’s mind entirely. Or breathlessly chasing words and images that play like a film going at double speed, hoping that fingers can keep up.
You could call it flow. You could call it the Muse. You could call it a lucky break.
Reading this piece from Louise Foerster reminded me of a time when my characters deserted me.
My protagonist and antagonist were about to face off for the last time, but I didn’t know where and how. Protagonist didn’t want to do it, so naturally he was no help. “It’s not fair,” Protag grumbled. “Didn’t I beat this guy already? Wasn’t that enough?”
The novel ground to a halt. In line with my less is more approach to worldbuilding, I don’t complete huge lists of traits for my characters. Much more important than their childhood pet or favourite colour, their personalities and choices are my focus. No short cuts there.
I was stuck.
Interview with the Bad Guy
Protag sulked. Antagonist stared out of the window, eyes fixed on a future only he could see. I decided to take a risk.
“Um, Antagonist? How are you going to win this once and for all? Why will you win?”
He turned his gaze towards me. “I am better and I am right.”
He explained himself fully and precisely, without emotion because that’s his character. It was the infamous villain’s monologue of so many movies and comic books, but before the battleground had even been decided.
I let him speak. I took notes (longhand works better for this kind of exercise.) About three-quarters of the way down the page, the solution came to me. I had to hustle him out of the room and get writing.
“I have more to say, if you would permit — ”
“Thanks so much for your time, but I have an appointment with my laptop. See you soon.”
He sounded disappointed. Not many people listened to him like that; they were all afraid of him. He couldn’t scare me and I’d heard enough.
Let the character speak
When you get stuck, interview a character. Interview the bad guy, the bad guy’s chief henchman, the protag’s best friend, the bartender who serves him whisky when things go wrong. Secondary characters often give a new perspective on the character that rounds him out. Of course, primary and secondary roles are all relative to where you’re standing, as the hero in your own tale.
Sometimes problem solving needs a different approach. The answer is within you. This isaway to coax it out of hiding.
There are secrets at the heart of every story; there is something that must be uncovered or discovered, both by the reader and by the characters. Hannah Kent