You are 37 when you first fall in love – properly, passionately, the way you dreamed of when you scribbled furiously in your teenage notebooks and that has eluded you until precisely this moment in a dusty Cairo hotel. It is not love at first sight and there is no Hollywood meet-cute, but there is a touching of souls, as Joni Mitchell once sang, that reverberates long after you meet him.
Months later, you leave everything you know and traverse continents to go back to him and a new life in the city he has bequeathed you. Over the next three years, you learn that Great Loves can be irrational and painful, full of terrible highs and soaring lows, that passion is overrated, and it is never good, as someone once told you, to love another person more than you love yourself. One day, you wake up and realise that love is not enough.
Love, in fact, is never enough.
You are 28 when you experience death – sudden, tragic, wrenching – for the first time. On a bright summer’s day in your office in London, you get a call from a policeman who tells you that your oldest sister, who has been missing for months, has been found dead in a car park overlooking the Cornish coast. You drop everything and run out for shelter in a Soho doorway, watching the world continue to turn as yours changes forever.
Late that night, you make the five-hour drive down to a Cornish hospital with your mother and sister to identify her, in the tiny chapel where they have laid out her body, and receive a crash course in pain, the finality of death, and the meaning of loss. You discover what it’s like to grieve under a terrible litany of shoulda/woulda/couldas and what ifs that spin endlessly into a vortex and threaten to suck you into the darkness.
For a long time after, you dream that she is with you – at a gathering or a party or at home. She gets up to go, as she always does, and you urge her to stay – over and over again. She never listens.
(You are 14 the first time a boy calls you beautiful. Late one summer night, by the swings in Oakmere Park, where you have gone with a friend for a walk. He whispers into your ear urgently and you smile in a way that suggests you’re used to such things. Inside you know that tomorrow you will put on your ugly school uniform and go back to normal life.)
You are 5 years and six months old when your parents take you and your sisters from your home in England and deposit you in a Catholic boarding school in a South Indian hill station – once the summer retreat of the colonial English. You do not realise it then but you will be ensconced there for the next seven years, only flying back home to England for the winter and summer holidays.
Twice a year for the next seven years, you will dread the long tunnel at the entrance to Heathrow airport, which you will always associate with your mother’s sobs as she tries to say goodbye. When you get to the school in the Indian hill station, you will cry into your pillow quietly for three nights as great waves of homesickness and guilt and regret consume you, until one morning you wake up and the strange boarding school has become your home again.
You will also cry each time you leave the school to go home for the holidays.
You are 33 – the age your sister was when she died (and Jesus) – an age you secretly thought you would never reach because you thought you had been cursed to die too, like the heroine of some morbid fairytale. You have spent the last five years caring less and less about your life, drinking too much, partying more recklessly, haunting crowded bars and clubs, indulging in careless flings and desperate love affairs, going through the motions in a career you hate more and more.
On your 33rd birthday, you leave the job, end the last relationship, and clear out your cupboards. At some point during this year, you will embark on a new career as a journalist, which you will embrace like it is your calling. For the first time in your life, you are proud of what you do.
You are 12 when your mother takes you out of your boarding school and puts you in a school near your home in England. You don’t know it then but she has begged the headmaster to let you in, even though he knows nothing about you – a strange Indian child in his very English school. He puts you in the bottom class of your year, with kids who already know they’re destined for hours of woodworking lessons and dreary home ec classes.
You realise for the first time that you look different from your classmates, who also seem strange to you in their overwhelming whiteness and brash confidence and determination to break the rules. Being around boys for the first time makes you self-conscious. You get called a Paki on your way home by two awkward boys from the other school in the neighbourhood, on the other side of town. You don’t know who’s more embarrassed. The next term, you’re moved up to the top set and a different world.
You are 39, four months from your 40th birthday, when you watch your father take his last racking breath in a quiet hospice bed in a North London suburb. He has been diagnosed with a brain tumour almost exactly two months earlier. You fly back home to England from Cairo when your sister tells you this, steeling yourself for your entry into the darkness once more.
Unlike your sister’s passing, however, your father’s death offers a chance at redemption. Your relationship with him has long been strained but you visit him twice a day, feed him, sit with him and try somehow to transmit all the love you can muster when you hold his hand. He cannot speak but his eyes follow you around the room as you move and you hope that, somewhere inside, he recognises that he is not alone.
After he dies, you feel an overwhelming urge to have a child – a primal call, you think, to complete the circle of life. It doesn’t happen.
You are 42 and in a committed relationship for the first time in your life. You, who have always fled commitment and run headlong into the arms of men incapable of giving it to you, are bowled over now by the sweetness of love and how it doesn’t have to hurt or feel like you’re jumping into the darkness without a safety net and how you can love from a place of strength without losing parts of yourself, rather than going into battle and coming out with the scars.
You learn what it’s like to love and be loved unconditionally, when you’re PMS’ing and grouchy, on your fat days and bad hair days, and the days when you’re tired and vulnerable and don’t want to get out of bed. You understand for the first time what it is to seek shelter in another’s arms, and that it is possible to trust, that what feels like the end often isn’t, and that everything is possible if you take a leap of faith.
You are 45 when you start writing again, properly. By now, you have given up much in your life – sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, careless love affairs with careless men. You try to eat well, exercise regularly, dabble in meditation and yoga to calm the restless soul. Sometimes you miss the old you, the sense of freedom, the open roads, the unpredictability and terrible glamour of a life less lived.
But by and large you think – and hope – this:
Slowly, very slowly, you are coming home.