I learned last week that an old friend had commited suicide. It was a shock but not exactly a surprise. In my parents’ time people would have said that she ‘suffered from her nerves’. Nowadays we would say that she had a mental illness. Either way, she was an enormously likeable person who just didn’t seem to be able to cope with the difficulties presented by her own personality.
My dismay is nothing compared to what her family and close friends are having to endure. Nevertheless, the news left me feeling stunned for a day or two. After that, I was filled with a sense of urgency. The realisation came home to me: we have so little time and so much of mine has already gone.
A very good friend of mine, who died about fifteen years ago of liver cancer, told me that when he was given the news that his condition was terminal, he found himself remembering how, as a boy, he would sometimes pay a few pence to hire out a boat on a pond in his local park. Each boat was allowed twenty minutes. When his allotted time was up, the boatkeeper would appear at the side of the pond and yell out his number.
‘It was always too soon,’ he said. ‘You were just beginning to enjoy yourself. But you knew there was nothing you could do about it. The pond wasn’t very deep. If necessary the boatkeeper could wade out into the middle and pull your boat back to shore himself.’ Amazingly , my friend told me all this with a grin.
I have to get on with my work before the boatkeeper calls out my number. It doesn’t matter that I’m not James Joyce or Charles Dickens, that I’m only writing children’s books. This is my mark upon the page of the world. I have to complete it.