One night, my dead mother rang me


Sally Beauman is the author of several blockbuster novels. She lives in London with Alan Howard, the RSC actor, their nineteen-year-old son, James, and a large dog called Lovell.

I am sometimes quite frightened of the dark and I really resent that. It seems to me that it's a particularly female fear and very foolish.

And yet I also love the night. I am fascinated by altered states of mind and particularly enjoy twilight. As light fades, every shape is open to a new interpretation and the imagination released from certitude.

I also love walking by starlight in the Cotswold village where we have a cottage. No human lights diminish the effect of the moon and stars, and sensing people asleep all around me is very peaceful. The only sound is my own footsteps and Lovell huffing and puffing now he's getting on a bit.

These contradictions in how I experience the night are, I think, very interesting and quite common. We are conditioned from early childhood, particularly by fairy tales, to regard the night as a very potent, usually threatening, presence. Later on, night becomes associated with romance, sex, magic and poetry.

I hardly ever work at night. I am very strict with myself and stop around 6pm, spending the evening winding down. When Alan's performing he gets back very late, high on adrenalin, and that's the time we finally get together. I'm usually exhausted, having been writing all day, but I drink black coffee and go to bed ridiculously late.

I don't often go to watch Alan in plays, though I'm always at his first nights. I identify with him immensely and feel frightened: I know the exact bits where he sometimes forgets the line or gets it slightly wrong; I know all the care and passion he's put into it. Until quite recently I couldn't get through a first night without rushing to the lavatory and being violently sick in the interval. Ridiculous! He's always fine.

Our bedroom is like a uterus, a cloistered private space. It's the only place in the house where I keep photographs. I don't like them on public display. I find the way photos freeze time perturbing and see them as personal icons. When Alan's away I particularly miss his warm physical closeness in bed. I like to put my cold feet on him to warm them up - even though it usually makes him angry!

I have to read for at least an hour before I go to sleep. This often helps me through an impasse I might be having with character or structure in my own writing. Even if what I'm reading is a completely different type of fiction I will wake up with problems mysteriously solved.

I often dream of the characters in my books. I always know who they are, though sometimes they look completely different from how I've described them. When that happens I realise there's another aspect of that person I haven't yet considered, and I'll alter them as a result. This close relationship between dreams and fiction is wonderful for a writer.

I don't think I'm ever in my dreams. I'm always observing - from where I don't know. The strange, novelistic thing that sometimes happens is changing from being an exterior viewer to an interior viewer, like a narrator switching from third person to stream-of-consciousness. I don't think it's important to understand dreams. I prefer them to be mysterious and would never want mine analysed.

I am delighted when I dream of the deceased and wish it would happen to me more. The other night I dreamt extraordinarily vividly of my mother, who died nearly 20 years ago. At the end of the dream she went away somewhere and then telephoned me. I absolutely could hear the phone ring. I picked it up and heard her voice, at which point I woke up. The effect of this moving, indirect communication, stayed with me all through the next day.

I do enjoy sleep and it's very comforting. I always sleep on any big decisions. You wake up distanced and can look at everything more sensibly. I'm not lazy like I used to be, however. It seems to me now that I spent half my life as a student at Cambridge asleep. I was so hedonistic in those days.

What changed me was having a baby. You suddenly become very aware of your own lifespan being limited and you want to use your time as well as possible. I'm quite terrified of being idle and wake up every morning at 6.30am. I creep down to the kitchen for my first shot of coffee and read poetry - good gymnastics for the mind.

I know that breakfast in bed and a good long lie-in would be the most wonderful sybaritic thing - but it's simply no longer a possibility.

Susan de Muth

The Independent, 27.4.94


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