It seems like a hundred years ago since I wrote the opening lines to After the Rain but now, finally, it’s out in the shops, with a cover as bright as sunshine emerging from clouds.
My initial inspiration for Tara’s journey was the flash flooding that swept Herefordshire in the autumn of 2019, causing widespread disruption across the county. Even as the waters were rising, the community rushed to help neighbours forced out of their homes, struggling to save furniture and livestock, or just plain stranded on the wrong side of deep water. The kindness felt like a bright light in a murky time, and more to the point, something that would happen in Longhampton – and I instantly saw Tara, the counsellor, trying to fix the town. Obviously, I wasn’t to know that things were about to get a whoooooole lot more murky, and in stranger ways than any of us – novelists included – could have imagined, or that it would be nearly two and a half years before I’d see the finished book in the shops.
By the start of 2020, I’d got into the rhythm of Tara’s story, and was enjoying the slightly bonkers world of the Wellness Centre. I’d saddled Tara with problems – an estranged twin, a feckless absentee dad, an equally feckless absentee boyfriend, and a charismatic colleague with a worrying secret – and I was particularly enjoying the research: everything from crystal healing to cats, for a change. And then my own world slipped off its axis: my dad died.
I stumbled through admin and surreal phone calls, constantly catching myself thinking, ‘I wonder if Dad knows about probate/funeral etiquette/inheritance tax’… and the pain floored me all over again. Days after his funeral, overshadowed by the looming cloud of coronavirus, the pandemic storm finally broke, the nation’s front door slammed shut, and life ground to a stunned halt for everyone. Including, I’m sorry to say, for Tara, David, and everyone at the Wellness Centre. It turns out that it’s hard to write fiction when your neighbours are quarantining their post in the garage for 72 hours and the television seems to be permanently tuned to a new sci-fi channel with unconvincing actors.
However. However. The thing that had happened during the floods happened again. All around our village, people were keen to know how they could help one another. Farmers arranged food deliveries to elderly people living on lanes miles from the shops. Whatsapp groups were set up for dog walking, for prescription collections, for hot food drop-offs. In the middle of confusion and fear, there was an instinct to help, to comfort, to find solutions to problems that cut people off and left them vulnerable. And that’s how – slowly – I picked up the threads of Tara’s story: by tapping into the bright little river of positive energy. I wanted to write something that celebrated the spark of hope that flickers, the small lantern in a dark night.
When the editorial team and I were discussing titles for this book, we kept coming back to Silver Linings, circling it, then rejecting it, because it felt a touch too glib. There were, after all, thousands of people now facing life without human beings they’d loved (and also without businesses, freedoms, opportunities). Sometimes there is no silver lining. There just isn’t. But if you can bear it, looking for one can help ease the bigger, inexplicable pain. I struggled to find a silver lining to losing my dad – until I realised that it was as a result of those devastating weeks that my relationship with my sister had turned into something precious.
It was probably the 350th pair of tights squirrelled away by Mum (god rest her bargain-hunting soul) against a world Lycra shortage that never came, that did it. After Dad died, my sister and I had the unenviable task of selling the family home, which our parents had bought in 1967 and spent fifty five years filling to the brim with memories, the physical reminders of which we had to sort, assess, keep, sell, recycle or most heartbreaking of all, skip. I can’t tell you how much we wept, but we did laugh. We compared childhood memories, some of which, interestingly, didn’t match. We talked more honestly to each other in those sad, weird weeks that we had in years. So there was that. And we also had some great nights with cousins, as we passed a few family heirlooms down to another generation, realising that we were now the middle-aged parents.
And that, in a nutshell, is what After the Rain is about: the tentative shoots of green and silver that peek through the mud and debris of disaster. Here’s one more example. The ancient willow in our garden died slowly during lockdown, much to our collective family sorrow. It was an elegant tree, arched over like a ballerina and swathed in ivy; I loved gazing up into its sage-green ribbons from the hammock underneath. We’ve been meaning to call the tree surgeon to get it chopped down for ages, but sadness made us procrastinate. Those big storms last month? Did the job for us. This weekend, we’re shopping for some new trees – the willow’s gone, but life goes on for the insects and birds setting up home in its stump, and hopefully next summer I’ll be breathing in the fragrance of the white lilacs I’ve always wanted.