Louise Beech | 05/08/2015
Haunted by the Sea.
I’ve always been haunted by the sea. There’s something lilting and lyrical about her waves; about that endless expanse of whirling water; about her stormy sprays and occasional calm, when the sun scatters gold on her ripples. There’s something awe-inspiring about her changeable currents. I’ve always felt the ocean is a she, like the many ships that cut through her surf.
So when I learned as a child that my grandfather, Colin Armitage, was a merchant seaman whose ship was torpedoed during the Second World War, it was as though I’d always known. And it explained everything. I was sure he watched over me. I often sensed someone in my room when I was little, just there, beyond the darkness, someone kind, ghostly. And I’d hear the sea.
As I grew up I loved writing. Water became a common theme in my work. I wrote about a ghostly dancer aboard a cruise ship, a little girl who escaped an abusive home life by swimming away with the dolphins, and after the 2017 UK floods destroyed our home I wrote about that in my first novel.
Not long after the floods, our seven-year-old daughter Katy was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. It was a rush to A&E with an almost unconscious child, and then a three-night stay in hospital while she recovered. Our lives were turned upside down. Life became an endless cycle of blood tests, injections, bruises, and strict food routine.
Surprisingly, our little girl coped better than we did. Until a few years later when, aged ten, she refused her injections. No amount of blackmail or begging or cajoling persuaded Katy otherwise, and we had to force the regime on her, which was horrendous. A distressed child is awful for a parent to witness – you’ll do anything to make them feel better.
In the end, the only thing that worked was stories. I suggested telling Katy made-up ones to distract from the injection and blood test pain. She has always loved books and the idea of hearing a variety of different tales every day piqued her interest. The deal was that she would willingly do her injection in exchange for a story.
As a writer I hoped to be good at creating characters and scenes on the spot, but it was much harder than I’d anticipated. I was accustomed to writing them down, alone, not inventing aloud. Katy soon grew tired of my made-up yarns.
Then I had a curious dream about my grandfather, Colin Armitage, sitting on my bed talking to me, just as I’d felt he had when I was small. I began to think about his story. His amazing sea survival story. And I realised that this was better than any fairytale I could ever think up.
So I began to tell Katy this story each time we read her blood and then did the required injection. We agreed on a short chapter with each procedure. We huddled on my bed and – as I became Grandad Colin’s voice – it turned into a lifeboat. She was mesmerised. She barely noticed each needle or finger prick.
This was the story…
In 1943 Colin’s ship, the SS Lulworth Hill, was torpedoed by Germans and he and thirteen other merchant seamen managed to get to a tiny lifeboat. Here they struggled to survive on the South Atlantic Sea, with minimal rations, in tropical heat, and enduring grave injuries. Sharks attacked the boat. Men began drinking seawater – and then to die. One by one, Colin saw his mates pass away.
When a British Royal Navy ship eventually rescued them fifty days later, only my grandad and his companion Ken remained. It is a story that has inspired many a newspaper clipping and been the subject of a Channel 4 documentary in 1984. Colin’s two medals were briefly on display in the Imperial War Museum in London.
Sadly, just six years after he got home, Colin died. So I never met him. Never heard him tell his story. But he came alive when I shared it with Katy.
When we had finished the tale, Katy was inspired to continue being brave, and has had her injections ever since. It was then that I began thinking what a fantastic novel our story would make. Katy didn’t want her personal details in a book, so I invented a mum, Natalie, and her daughter, Rose, who were going through the same thing – a diabetes diagnosis that changed their world. In the novel, they also shared Colin’s story, and in these parts I did my best to stick with what I knew to be the truth as closely as possible.
So How to be Brave was born. I had written three novels before it but felt this was my best. The one I’d always been meant to write. And though at times it made me cry to create, it was the most natural thing I’d ever done.
In February 2015 my lifelong dream came true and Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books bought the novel. She said she fell in love with it instantly, that there was something magical about the story. How to be Brave was released on Kindle at Amazon 30th July and has garnered some gorgeous reviews, which makes me so happy. The paperback will be out on 17th September.
To write the book, I became Colin. I gave him the voice he’d never had. Shared the story he’d never lived long enough to tell us. At times I would turn around from the computer, sure I could sense him, smell the sea, hear his companions singing a sailor’s hymn. I hope that others will also find inspiration in his incredible fight for life on the sea’s waves. And I hope that knowing it could makes him smile.
*How to be Brave is available from Amazon on Kindle now, and will be released in paperback 17th September, and then available from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, Foyles and Blackwell’s.
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