A Letter From Rachel
Recently my youngest daughter said to me, ‘Who do you love most? Harold Fry? Or your new book with Byron Hemmings?’ It seemed a very good question so I thought a bit before I said to her, ‘Harold has lots of people to look after him but for now Byron only has me, so I am going to choose Byron.’ Nell seemed very happy with that answer. She says she loves Byron too though that is not with any knowledge of the book. It is simply because she is a kind person.
The truth is, I have been thinking about ‘Perfect’ for a long time. Longer even than Harold Fry. The idea about the cost of perfection and an accident that changes everything, as well as the central characters, have been loitering in my head for many years. I could always see Byron and Diana, him a little too big, her a little too fragile, and I knew I needed to find out more about who they were and what happened to them. Sometimes I have even tried fitting them into other stories but it never felt right because this is where they belong. They belong in a hot English July, where the air is heavy with the scent of white nicotiana flowers, and the moor glows behind them in the afternoon sun. They belong in a period where the summer holidays stretch long and empty ahead. Where women spend days alone, looking after home and children. Where children invent long elaborate games to while away the time.
It is difficult for me to know why I choose to write certain stories. Often I don’t understand until many years later. (If we understood, would we need to write them?) But what I can remember vividly is when the first nugget of the story came to me. It was just over twelve years ago, after the birth of my third child, and I was driving my oldest daughter to school. My second daughter was telling me she was hungry, she needed breakfast now, the baby was crying, and on the passenger seat beside me were the plate of cakes I had got up at dawn to make for the very competitive children’s bake stall. I was driving slowly. Traffic was heavy. I had barely slept for days. And then I had one of those moments when you lift out of yourself, when you see your life from a new perspective, and it occurred to me that if I made a mistake, if someone ran into the road, if anything unexpected happened, I did not have the energy, the space, the wherewithal, the presence of mind even, to deal with it. I was stretched as far as I could go. I began writing the story as soon as I got home.
But – as with most things- it has grown over time. New characters have stepped in. Things I couldn’t understand have become clearer. I have played with different versions until I found this one. It was only as I began to write it this time round, for instance, that it dawned on me that it wasn’t a contemporary story and neither was it an urban one. (It began in my imagination as both.) I decided to set it in 1972 – when I was 10 – and then two things happened that gave me little bristles of excitement. The first was that I found my old diary from 1973 (it records very little apart from school lunches) but at the end I had pasted a double page from The Times, listing the events of 1972. The second was that in researching 1972, I learnt about the addition of two leap seconds. And this was so right for the story, such a perfect twist, that it was like being given a present. It was like the moment in Harold Fry when I realized the truth about David – the story sort of fell into place.
The moor setting is fictitious. There is no real Cranham Moor. But – as with Harold Fry – I stepped out of our house and drew on what I saw. I had to remove a lot of houses in order to get my moor – and extend it – but it is inspired by what I am lucky enough to catch glimpses of from the window of my writing shed as I look across the hilss. The pictures of the land at dawn, the night sky, the meadow of flowers, these are all things I see. There are many other little snapshots of my life woven into the story. I too have sat down by the pond waiting for the goose to lay her egg so that the crows won’t get it. I too built a bridge when I was little that collapsed under my feet. I too have a beetle key ring. I haven’t carried an armchair down to the fields as yet but I wouldn’t rule it out.
For me, this is a story about truth as well as perfection. Is Jeanie’s injury real? Is Beverley Diana’s friend or her rival? Did the accident even happen – or did Byron imagine it? What is Diana’s past? It is also a story about the tender moment when a child becomes the height of a parent and a parent realizes he or she is maybe still a child. It is about a man who has been broken into two stories, and the healing power of friendship. Other questions are more oblique. How do we know time is accurate? How do we know there is one sky? How can we ever really communicate when words hold such different subjective meanings? These are all questions that haunted me as I wrote. I was telling someone about it the other day and she told me that in some cultures the past is not behind us; it is ahead of us where we can see it. The future is behind – because it is still hidden and unknown. I found this idea fascinating. For me, it is the equivalent of Byron realizing that time is not necessarily a series of forward-moving, regular spaces.
I suppose it is a book about sadness too. I don’t think I am alone in sometimes feeling sad. I really don’t. But I suppose it is a story that has come from something deep inside me.
I hope you will join Nell and me in looking after Byron.
With best wishes,