I was never very good at sport. I had flat feet and asthma. When I was first diagnosed – at the age of four – there were no easy solutions. If you couldn’t breathe, you’d lie down. Plastic, streamlined puffers were a thing of the future. When I was a little older, there were inhalers with plastic capsules that were pressed with inbuilt needles, so that you could inhale the powder inside. For a six year old, it was yucky. I didn’t like doing it, so I think I tried my best to avoid it. I spent a lot of my childhood in bed, reading, and watching clouds scud past the windows.
I never thought running was something I would want to do. My sisters were captains of many sports teams, my father a Marathon runner, my mother a sprinter in her youth. I was the odd one out, and of course, in a family of characters, I was happy to be the quiet reader. Now though, at fifty years old, six months teetotal, vegan, gluten and sugar free (I’m taking middle age seriously, and the fact that I am of south east Asian descent, which means diabetes is almost inevitable, if I don’t make these changes) – I am a runner. Three times a week, I go out onto the cycle track and run 5 miles quite fast. This morning, I did it in an hour, which isn’t great by anyone else’s standards, but by mine – it’s fantastic. It’s more than fantastic.
Dad started running in his mid forties. His own father died at the age of 45, and he always had it in his mind that he would need to ward off that hypnotic thought of dying young. Dad was a funny, dear man, full of laughter and jokes. He was serious too, and very religious, but he loved to play. He loved children. When he was working in the garden, he would call us to make a cup of tea, and we would take it out in his favourite cup. A mustard coloured, nondescript seventies mug. We would stay and chat, and when he finished drinking, the cricketer in him would throw the cup in the air. Or he’d throw it at us – from a very young age, he would take all three of us out into the garden and throw balls at us, make us dive for the high catches. I was never any good. It was almost certainly because I didn’t practise. You can’t really practise catching if you’re holding the page in your book with one hand.
When I was sixteen, I took the tea out, and had a chat with him, inspecting the flower bed he was digging. And then he threw the cup, in the air first, catching it himself. When he pointed it at me, I said ‘Don’t throw it at me!’, but he did anyway, and I turned away. I turned away. I can’t tell you why. But I keep seeing that turn away, today. The mug smashing on the rockery.
Time is finite. We cannot do everything. I really thought, for a long time, that I actually could do everything I wanted. I have a limited pallet of choices. A palate, if you will. I like to write. I like to draw. I like children. I thought I could do everything within those loves. It is proving harder than I imagined. When I’m out with people who have just done a whole degree in illustrating, I am fascinated and a little alarmed that they draw and draw. They sit down, and pen goes to paper, and there you have it, amazing artworks are created while I scrabble about with pencils and staring and deciding on framing and so on. It’s like lying in bed and looking at the sky: it’s fascinating, but at some point, you have to get up and do. You have to catch the cup. You have to draw.
I told myself this the other day: cut yourself a break. Be compassionate to the child you were. You were sick. You didn’t have the practise to catch the cup. Practise is all it takes. So I started drawing this week. I started completing projects. I started running faster. I used new pens, new techniques. I learned to land on the balls of my feet. I learned to play with colour. I learned that – hey, if time is finite, chucking a cup in the air, or at someone, hoping they’ll catch it, is like drawing a picture or telling a story – you’re taking a chance. Either someone will catch it, or they won’t. And if they don’t, it’s only a mug. It’s only a picture. It’s only a story. They may be the most important thing in the world, but at least you’re not in bed watching it happen to other people.