I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the lessons my mother taught me from an early age was to live like a tortoise: ‘carry your home on your back,’ she said. By home she meant what matters to me: my loves, my hobbies, my jobs, my passions. She has lived what she preached – sometimes by design, sometimes through the accidents of life. At the age of four, when the Russians invaded Berlin, my grandmother put her and her siblings on a horse and cart and and they fled to a small cottage on the Baltic coast. At sixteen, she and her twin sister sailed on a cargo ship to America, the land of Elvis Presley, mini-skirts and ice-cream. In the years that followed she lived in Rome and Paris, travelled through Greece, Chile, Vietnam. She learnt languages along the way – and always carried her tennis racket and her love of telling stories with her.
And that’s how she brought me up. While my German cousins learnt to horsehide, she put a tennis racket in my hand, ‘you can take this anywhere,’ she called over the net as she fed me another shot from her bucket of old tennis balls. While my friends learnt the piano, she bought me a second hand violin – ‘small and light enough to carry in one hand.’ Most importantly (seeing as I was both a hopeless violinist and a pretty shabby tennis player) she taught me that words can be carried anywhere – on paper, if necessary, or, failing that, in your head.
I suppose that is why I became a teacher and a writer, two jobs I can do anywhere: professions that live in the mind and heart, that need little more than a voice, a curious mind, an imagination and audience: the most portable of props.
And now I have a new love, hobby, passion, job – my little Tennessee. One of the stories Mama told me was that when she was an interpreter in Paris, she would take my brother to work and sit him under the desk. When her boss, a particularly enlightened Frenchman, spotted tiny pink feet poking out from under a blanket or heard a gurgle interrupting my mother’s translations, he turned a blind eye. ‘You see, babies, too, are portable,’ Mama said. What she didn’t say was that these little creatures are rather more demanding than a tennis racket, a violin or a pen.
The other day I wrote about paradoxes. Well here’s another one: my baby daughter, Tennessee (11 weeks old today), inspires me to write – she is my muse. I am itching to write. And yet, she is also the one who keeps me from scribbling. The minute I open my notebook, log onto my computer, pull the cap off my pen – her eyes fly open, she kicks her chubby legs in the air and a moment later she makes clear that she needs to be fed or bounced or cuddled or entertained. Never have the words Carpe Diem (or rather Carpe Minutam) felt so apt: I must grasp every second when she is sleeping or entertaining herself or, as in the picture below, gazing at her black and white book. On Saturday, when I introduced Tennessee to my agent, Bryony Woods, Bryony reminded me that J.K. Rowling used to push her babies around Edinburgh until they fell asleep and that as soon as their heavy eyelids dropped, she would steal into a cafe and write furiously. That is what I am doing now in Reading’s Costa Waterstones, home to many of my stories. Little Tennessee is having her lunchtime nap – and she’s a short napper, so I must be quick and make some notes on Strangely Close, my latest project – the story of my mother’s itinerant life.