'Cancer did not haunt us. It helped us to understand what matters in life': Robert Peston's heartbreaking tribute to his late wife Siân

 

The BBC's Business Editor, Robert Peston, has written a heartbreaking memoir of his wife Siân Busby's battle to finish her final novel before dying from cancer.

In a long article for the Radio Times, Peston writes of how he slept on a mattress on the floor of his wife's hospice room during her final days and lovingly describes his wife's courage in protecting their two children from the impact of her illness.

"She did not want to be classified as infirm and she did not need maudlin sympathy," he writes. "The priority was that our boys, Max and Simon, should not be constantly bothered and worried by friends and neighbours asking for the latest prognosis on her health. Siân just got on with living."

Ms Busby, who was diagnosed with lung cancer five years before her death in September at the age of 51, worked on her fifth book during the latter stages of her illness. But Mr Peston was not aware that she had completed her manuscript, which he faithfully transcribed after her death.

"I did not know, until reading handwriting as familiar as my own and hearing her voice in my head, that she had finished this exquisite work," he reveals.

The novel, A Commonplace Killing, will be featured on the BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime feature next month.

The couple had known each other since Ms Busby was a childhood friend of Mr Peston's sister in north London. But it wasn't until the journalist was in his mid-30s that "I finally did the one really inspired thing I have ever done, which was to ask her to live with me and then marry me."

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2009, when her first novel, McNaughten, was published, Ms Busby talked of her upbringing as part of a proudly Welsh family – her father was an actor and not that well-off – and how she admired Peston from afar. "Robert was in the year above and, although I always thought he was dishy; he never paid any attention to me until we were at university," she said.

When she talked of her writing, it was with modesty. "It's the story that's interesting, not me." Peston highlights this same humility. "She was not interested in conventional power, or fame or glory, about which she was scathing. All she ever wanted to do was make things. She was an artist."

Her final work reflects on what it is like to face the approach of death, her husband says. "My motive was selfish: I wanted to keep talking to her. I still do. The tears could not be staunched as I read, deciphered and typed. Foggy-brained, the transcription was spoilt by spelling mistakes and typographical errors. All mine. Siân's prose was as pellucid and accurate as ever."

But for all his anger at the cruelty of cancer – "a monster laying waste to our family" – Peston still finds the warmest words to describe their final times together: "I know this may seem odd, but these were wonderful years for Siân, Max, Simon and me.

"The cancer did not haunt us. If anything, it helped us to understand what matters in life: family, first and foremost; work that fulfils; friends, beauty and fun."

Robert on Siân:

"I did the one really inspired thing I have ever done… ask her to live with me and then marry me"

Siân on Robert:

"I always thought he was dishy; he never paid any attention to me until we were at university"

Robert on Siân:

"She was not interested in power… All she ever wanted to do was make things. She was an artist"

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