SECOND THOUGHTS
On Sunday, I moan that all I need in order to finish my work is a few days away somewhere - anywhere - alone, without commitments, without my family.

"Well, for God's sake, go," says my partner, releasing me so generously and so completely that my heart plummets. "What's stopping you? Just do it. I'll manage the kids."

Friends of ours have a converted barn in a field in Suffolk, and within a few hours I'm told it's empty and it's mine. The magnolia will be in bloom.

"I couldn't possibly be there in the middle of nowhere without the car," I venture lamely (well, I do have to transport my Amstrad, my special kneeling chair, my big red physio ball for my back exercises).

"Then take the car," my partner shrugs. "Go on - I'll manage."

In the daylight, all of this seems a good idea - no, more than a good idea, a godsent opportunity to focus, no interruptions, no background noise. An offer no writer with three children under seven could or should refuse.

But as dusk approaches, so does the pathetic truth. I will be terrified alone there at night (we're talking open fields, forest and a mere scattering of dwellings). I will be so frightened I won't be able to sleep, then I'll be too tired to work. And fear itself will stop me concentrating. If the ghosts don't get me, the serial killers will.

"You're 34," my partner exclaims when I say Thanks But I've Decided Against It, "what exactly are you afraid of?"

"You think I should go?"

"I'm not making up your mind for you. You're old enough to do that, too."

I dither, furious with myself and with him. There's nothing so inhibiting as having nothing whatsoever in your way.

I unplug the Amstrad and pack my leggings, my vitamins and my manuscript.

The adventure begins badly as, stocked up with pre-washed salad and Evian, I maim a pigeon on my way out of Sainsbury's car park. But a woman who absolutely cannot afford to consider this an omen, I turn a blind eye and hit the M11.

Less than three hours later, I am sitting under the magnolia in a walled garden drowned in April sunshine, watching the big red fish dodge around the pond.

I work productively all afternoon and evening, skilfully ignoring the onset of dusk. But once I glimpse my face reflected in the darkening windows, and am forced to acknowledge the occasional hooting of owls, I pour myself a large drink.

My children will be in bed by now, kicking blankets, flicking the pages of picture books, calling for cups of water. I'm free to do what I like. I could run a bath, eat, listen to the radio or do more work. Or, if I left now, I could be home before

midnight.

I work. I don't phone home. I think of how writers relish solitude. I don't think of Dunwich, the nearby village, most of which slipped into the sea a century ago. I don't think of the solitary church bell, which can - some say - still be heard ringing mournfully under the sea at low tide. I don't think of all that raw, dark space outside.

When I clean my teeth, the hiss of bristle on gum is startling. I bitterly regret flushing the lavatory because of the half-hour of unpredictable gurgles and creaks that follow.

I lie in bed with two lights and Virgin Radio on, reading Marie Claire Health and Beauty, purpose-bought for its glossy, cheery banality. I concentrate on fake tans and whether the new, Fifties silhouette works for the office. Outside, the pond is metallic with moonlight, each magnolia bloom an eerie, bleached candle pointing skywards.

Reader, nothing happened. I wriggle into consciousness at dawn, drenched in sun, with the ink of the Marie Claire cover imprinted on my cheek.

I work all that morning (spectacular, exhilarating progress) and then drive into Southwold and pound along the seafront, my hair blowing into my mouth. All my childhood summers were spent here, and all that's changed is me.

There's the cream teashop where my father prided himself on finding spelling mistakes on the Remington-typed menu; Pinkney's craftshop where we bought felt mice with our pocket money. They're still there, even the bride mouse I lusted after for three or four summers, with its pristine satin ruffles and pointy, goody-goody face.

In the high street, a young traffic warden is writing out a ticket. A very old lady stands watching outside the post office, a shawl around her shoulders, her face dark with wrinkles. "That traffic warden," she remarks loudly to her companion. "He reminds me of Jack - you know, he was best man at my sister's wedding."

"A nice chap, Jack," she goes on. "Always smiling. Happy-go-lucky fellow. Mind you, not so lucky. He died on his birthday."

I stay in this blissful place five more days, fear slowly banished by peace and productivity. Then I drive home in blazing sunshine, work finished, euphorically pleased that I can, after all, still exist adrift from those I love.

"Back already?" my partner asks with his customary, studied nonchalance. And as if I had never left, the kids start yelling at me to fetch them things from the fridge.

Later that night, our bedroom seems safe, cacophonous, brightly lit and overpopulated - and the past few days already seem as unlikely and irrelevant as a dream.

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