Losing my wallet was the last straw. The final sign, if any were needed, that what I was really losing was my marbles. It was the climax of a catalogue of cock-ups and memory lapses, of a comedy of errors that had been playing out for several weeks, but long since stopped being funny. I’d taken on an extra piece of work that had burgeoned into something much bigger and more complex than I’d thought, with tight deadlines and high stakes.
That, added to the Shared Stories project, my other writing work, several personal challenges and the usual domestic circus, meant life had become overwhelming. It felt like a vice was tightening around me and I couldn’t get a single thing right. Not only was I was forgetting, losing or making a mess of things, but I could barely put two words together. The final indignity for a writer: I was losing the plot.
An underlying source of this stress is the deepening sadness that my Cairngorms novel Colvin’s Walk is still without a publisher. That awful waiting is an experience so common to writers, and yet it never loses its pain, for at its core is the growing fear that your work is not good enough. That you are not good enough. This May marked a year since my agent, Cathryn Summerhayes of Curtis Brown, took on the novel; in the same month she won Literary Agent of the Year at The 2019 British Book Awards. She’s undoubtedly good enough. Has my novel proved too much for even her considerable powers? I try to reassure myself that an agent of that calibre and experience would not have taken it on unless she believed in it. So why, why, why…?
When we met last September, Cathryn said agents have their heads in their hands trying to sell literary fiction at the moment; it’s just not deemed commercial enough. This is true, but clearly some literary fiction is being sold. Just not mine.
So I don’t know why. All I know is that it’s a story that took me nearly five years to write and however unsaleable or strange, I still yearn for it to be told; it’s a story I think about every day.
In that story, shepherd Colvin disappears, leaving twelve of his possessions in a meandering trail across the landscape, their discovery gradually revealing the story of his life and the mystery of his going. His brother Sorley finds the last one at the top of a mountain in the Cairngorms. The Gaelic name is Sgòr an Lochain Uaine – the peak of the small green loch – for it rises above a corrie that cups a dark pool, so high it is hidden until you are beside or above it. In English, it is The Angel’s Peak.
I chose it for those names and for its remoteness and beauty, but relied on internet walk reports and photos for description, as I had never been. This year – Alistair and I promised each other – we would go. I started the novel at 3am on midsummer’s night six years ago and for a long time its working title was The Shortest Night, not just because of its genesis, but also because it is the night when Sorley climbs the mountain.
One week after my lost wallet, it was the 21st of June, but we were committed to Solas Festival that weekend. Two weeks later, Shared Stories activity finished for the summer and though I had a mound of other work and writing I wanted to do, I knew I needed a break and to take stock. I knew I needed a mountain.
In a serendipitous gift, the diaries and the weather were both clear enough that first weekend in July and suddenly the thing I’d been saying for ages I wanted to do looked like it might actually happen. We started gathering our under-used camping kit, borrowing and buying to fill the gaps, and plotting the route. Extremely fit walkers can get up Angel’s Peak and back from Speyside in a long summer’s day, throwing in the neighbouring Munros of Cairn Toul and Braeriach for good measure, but I’m not one of them. Nor do I want to be. Why tear round the hills as fast as possible, beating myself to a pulp in the process? What’s the point? I’m not bagging Munros or doing mountain marathons; I don’t need to win or prove anything. In fact, the opposite.
I need to lose.
Not my wallet or my composure, but all the illusions that keep creeping back and tying me up in knots.
I need to give up.
Not on writing, but on the pushing and pressure – internal and external, the straining to achieve, the seductions of so-called success.
I need to walk into the mountains.
Not to conquer but to surrender, to find myself at the mercy of things greater than me; to go to the rock that is higher than I.