I am coming to the end of a period of intense work. My new novel is almost ready for copy-editing. I have been polishing it for days, changing words around to make the sentences read better, then changing them back again and worrying that I am just fiddling with the text in an unnecessary way. At this stage there is a reluctance to let go. I have, after all, lived with these characters for years, shared their triumph and their pain, understood their dillemas, forgiven them for their mistakes. In short I've been a pretty good mother and as all mothers know, letting go isn't easy. Someday soon I will have to watch them take their first steps in an indifferent world where to be misunderstood is the norm, and judgment is a harsh, commercial business. So of course I'm reluctant to deliver them into the hands of others. But spring is here, the bluebells planted in my garden last year have turned out pink, and the two tiny kittens we brought home in the snow are persecuting the birds outside. In six weeks I shall be flying to Venice for the Biennale. Summer demands a new rhythm. Closing my computer I decide I shall go walking everyday with my camera.
'Really?' asks my family. 'Every day? Even when it rains?'
Ignoring them I head towards the tow-path and the river where the willows have changed from pollarded stumps to great brushes of tender green and the earth smells fresh and full of life. It is early morning.
The canal is unruffled and full of reflections, the moorhens walk ahead of me on unsteady legs, and in the distance I hear the sound of a train rushing past. I cross the bridge and go into the meadow. Apart from a few joggers there is no one about. Even the allotments are locked up and silent, tidied away and cutback in the ways of good gardeners. I sigh. I am not a good gardener, I think. My gardening, like my walking, seems to have been restricted to fair weather. The cold defeats me as do some of the characters in my new book. Walking briskly across Fiddler's Island I resolve to change all that, and to show my family the magnificent set of images I will take throughout this year. That's the plan anyway. We've all heard of the New Year's resolution. Well, this is the spring resolution.
As I continue along the path I pass another bank of willows and recall another morning, many years before when I passed a group of rowers, their coach shouting instructions. It must have been early autumn because the willow trees were already turning yellow as they bent gracefully towards the water's edge and a black-and-white cow was munching peacefully in the field beyond. An idyllic English country scene where you might be forgiven for expecting Mole and Ratty to appear at any moment. Instead what I saw was a small Afghanistani boy in a long white kaftan and a white hat walk hurriedly along the path and disappear through the trees and onto the railway bridge. The combination of images was startling, a magical meeting of East and West amongst the willows. Magical realism before breakfast. I cursed the fact that I didn't have my camera that day.