Three women in the Thames: swimming for Ambitious about Autism

I'm in the middle! About to swim with my friends

I’m in the middle! About to swim with my friends

Not surprisingly, we hesitated at the water’s edge. Sure, there had been a heatwave, and the Thames was likely to be rather less freezing than it might usually be. But it did look somewhat murky, and we’d committed ourselves to swimming a mile of it. Downstream, sure, but all the same…

It was all a bit Calendar Girls. There we were, three women on the more experienced side of 40, having just taken up a range of increasingly silly poses for the photographer from the local newspaper. We were sporting a selection of vintage swimhats that were beyond absurd: heaven only knows where my friend had got them from, or why she should have a collection of such things.

All this was in a good cause: we’d planned our mile-long river swim to raise funds for the national charity for children and young people with autism, Ambitious about Autism. And it was a cause close to my heart, as my six-year-old son has autism.

As we stood together looking down at the Thames, we knew there was nothing for it but for to get in or to admit defeat and go home. And there was no way we were going to do that.  Our friends, family and colleagues had already supported us to the tune of around £700. (If you’d like to sponsor us too, that would be just brilliant – here’s our JustGiving page – it’s still open.)

We’d shed our charity t-shirts. Standing on the little jetty in our swimming costumes, we were fast approaching the moment of no return.

Our eyes met. I don’t know who said, ‘Oh come on, let’s get in and get it over with,’ but somebody did. And then we were in.

We posed for a few more photos, and then we were off.

I'd taken my swimhat off by this point. Too tight!

I’d taken my swimhat off by this point. Too tight!

Three women in the river, chatting all the way

I’d originally been absolutely adamant that I was NOT GOING TO TALK. When I’m in my local swimming pool I get a little frustrated with those ladies who swim along double file, talking all the way. Swim! Chat later! I find myself thinking. And anyway, talking might have increased the chance that some of that Thames water – supposedly better than it used to be, but still, not exactly pure – could end up in my mouth, and then ultimately in my stomach, with potentially unpleasant results.

Did I stick to that? Did I heck. After the first few strokes, I heard my friends, the two Helens, chatting away behind me, and of course I joined in. We chatted solidly the whole way. Apparently the acoustics were such that our riverbank supporters could hear every single word loud and clear, even when their view of us was obscured by foliage.

Just a note of caution – swimming in open water is potentially dangerous, and I’m not going to advocate it. As we all know water is always to be treated with great respect and wariness. I was nearly bowled out into the sea at Cornwall as a small child, and that is one of my formative memories – in fact, what I remember best of all is not being in the water, but having to wear a very odd assembly of everybody else’s too-big clothes on the way home, and no knickers.

One of my friends is an experienced river swimmer: she’d come up with the idea for our Thames dip and researched it. My river companions started thinking about our next challenge almost as soon as we’d finished this one! I’ve noticed that a theme that crops up from time to time in my fiction is the friendship that takes a cautious character out of the familiar and into adventure – that’s what happens to Anna in After I Left You (due out Jan 2014) when she goes to university. In art as in life!

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Helen Rumbelow, me, Helen Sage. Check us out! Yeah!

The real challenge that day, however, was the one accomplished by my husband, Ian Pindar, who looked after our children on the river bank. We’d hesitated about whether to bring our son. It was an absolutely exceptional situation – would it confuse him? Would he run off? And yet we had talked to him about it and it was clear he wanted to be there.

And so he was. And I will always treasure the memory of seeing my husband and both my children all there together, smiling and waving at me as I looked up at them from the river.

Arriving for the challenge, looking less nervous than I felt...

Arriving for the challenge, looking less nervous than I felt…

Happy first book birthday to Stop the Clock

Dreams don’t come true without a bit of outside help; someone else has to wave the magic wand and give you permission to go to the ball. My debut novel, Stop the Clock, is published on Thursday 16 August, a big day for me which wouldn’t be in the offing without the hard work and encouragement of numerous other people along the way.

The publication of Stop the Clock represents the culmination of more than three decades of wanting to be a writer, and an awful lot of pens, printer ink and paper. I’m very grateful to my agent and to my editor and the rest of the team at my publisher, Black Swan, for transforming my manuscript into the finished book that will hit the shelves on Thursday. It’s been one hell of a ride – now for the final fast downhill run!

None of it would have happened without the back-up of my husband, the poet and writer Ian Pindar, an editor par excellence who always has a cool head in an IT crisis. Ian has a sharp eye for a redundant word, and a disciplined attitude to work that I’ve tried to emulate. It’s always very reassuring to have him look over something before sending it out into the world.

He’s also a dab hand with a camera. He took the photo of me on this blog, which makes me look at least five years less tired than I really am.

A big thank you to my ideal readers

Ian was one of the book’s first readers, but there were others who helped to get it through the early stages too. Books that give advice about creative writing often talk about how, when you’re writing, you should imagine the ideal reader, the sympathetic audience that is receptive to what you have to say, and willing you to say it. It’s a bit like the scenes in the film The King’s Speech where George VI speaks directly to his speech therapist rather than to the terrifying masses. I was lucky to have just the right reader at each stage in the development of my book. They take pride of place in the acknowledgements.

Stop the Clock is a book about friendship, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if it wasn’t for my friends, though I’m grateful that we haven’t had quite such a fraught time as Natalie, Lucy and Tina.  Thanks are due to my family too, and my children, without whom Stop the Clock would never have got started.

My experience of working on the book over the last three and a bit years has been bound up with what has been happening in my family, in particular my son’s diagnosis with autism. It’s been a strange, intense time, but while the future is always uncertain, I think we feel much better placed to face up to it now than we did a couple of years ago. So thank you to all the people who have cared for and taught him, and advised us on how to help him, and to our lovely, supportive local community.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Stop the Clock in our home town week after next. Finally the time has come for the book to make its way into the world! I feel like a mother on a child’s first day at school, waiting at the gate, peering at the playground and realising that what happens next is out of her hands.

Part of parenting is letting go. So goodbye and good luck to Tina, Lucy and Natalie, the three main characters who originally existed only for me and a handful of others, and now are ready to tell their stories to anyone who wants to read them.

My top seven novels about female friendship

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Friends, by my daughter

When I was writing Stop the Clock, I looked at lots of other books about groups of female friends that follow the outcomes of different attitudes to work and men and family life, and the decisions women make and how this affects their relationships with each other.

Here are seven novels about women’s lives and friendships that I’ve enjoyed hanging out with over the years.

  1. One I keep going back to was Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, which I think is just terrific – funny, frank, sexy and moving (and full of relationships with men that don’t quite work out).
  2. The mother (grandmother?) of all these books about groups of women has got to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. OK, it’s about sisters, but still – different types of woman, different attitudes to how to be a woman, and to what sort of man and relationship to aspire to. I often think of the bit where Jo passes the manuscript of her book round, and people tell her to cut different bits out and it ends up getting thinner and thinner!
  3. Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy. Her first. I still remember the cover, with bold red-headed Aisling and quiet blonde Elizabeth. That seems to be a common dynamic in these kind of stories – the go-for-it girl and the one who is more reserved but would secretly like to be wilder.
  4. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg. A gutsy tomboy, a shy, lady-like girl, and a bad bloke. Warm, but also dark and surprising: southern Gothic. Cuts between the Depression and the 80s.
  5. Lace by Shirley Conran. Meet Pagan, the Cornish aristo; Maxine, married to a French count; Judy, the American magazine publisher; and Kate, the writer. Epic romp across decades and different countries, with designer luggage. (I wrote a blog post recently on why Lace is a much better read than Fifty Shades of Grey.)
  6. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Brilliant telling of the stories of four Chinese women who have come to live in the US and their American-born daughters.
  7. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Again, looks at both friendship and mother-daughter relationships (the main mother-daughter relationship is pretty damn fraught, and the friends – the Ya-Yas – intervene to try to repair the damage). There’s a great scene when the troubled mother welcomes in a woman selling cosmetics door-to-door, who is hopeless as a saleswoman but also desperate, having fallen on hard times, and the two of them restore each other’s self-belief: quintessentially feminine.

Friendship and falling out in Stop the Clock

Good times bond people together– I guess it’s the honeymoon principle. Bad times, too, especially if you help each other get through them.

With old friends – the friends you make at school, or university or college, or in your first job – the history that glues you together is a compound of both the fun stuff and the disasters, plus something else; you come to define each other. The friend who knew you back then as well as now, who has seen you change, really knows you; someone you just met only sees the person you appear to be today. But change can mean distance, too; how far can the bonds of friendship stretch before they break?

The three main characters in Stop the Clock, my debut novel, are close in their mid-twenties, but their lives are set to head in different directions. Lucy, married and a mum, has no desire to go back to work; Tina is ambitious and career-focused; Natalie just wants to settle down with her boyfriend, or thinks she does. By their mid-thirties, they have ended up in quite different positions as far as their love lives and careers are concerned – but is the picture about to change yet again?

Old friendships – like any long relationship – sometimes hit a rough patch. (I still feel bad about ruining my friend’s egg poaching pan that her grandmother gave her. What can I say – in an ideal world, nobody would ever let me near a cooker.)

Stop the Clock looks at what happens when there are tensions between friends, when the goodwill built up over the years is put to the test. Following what happens to the three friends was a way of dramatising the different kinds of lives that women lead, depending not just on our choices, but also on chance – the opportunities that come our way (or don’t, however much we wish they would).