My book is out –Journeys Without A Map has begun its own journey into the world. Like an anxious parent I watch from a distance. I imagine the warehouse where copies are being despatched to bookshops – but who will ever find it there, among so many? Across continents I hear that those who have ordered it have been told it is “winging its way to Australia – expected delivery in 15 to 20 days”. What kind of wings are those? Migrating birds would get there faster. Nearer home I’m beginning to get messages that friends are reading it … have read it … have even put up a review on Amazon & Goodreads. I treasure each one, momentary companions on the journey.
For these last months the news has once again been full of journeys of a traumatic kind. People having to flee — no place on planes — hostile borders — arriving in a strange country with almost nothing. For thirty years and more stories like this have been interwoven with my life, so many untold stories. And also others that need telling, undramatic stories of people in safer situations who rise to the challenge of what is happening to people they don’t know. Welcoming refugees, petitioning governments to accept them, raising funds to make their transitions easier.
It so happens that the first event to launch my book is with a Refugee Action Group in a small UK town. It’s on zoom, and as each new face comes up on the screen I am thinking of the woman who set this in motion, and who won’t be here. Anne Bowker and I met over 30 years ago when we were both teaching English to people newly arrived from other countries. I was invited to speak at a conference in her area. Afterwards we chatted, and among the many I met that day she was one I remembered. Like me she had started to learn Urdu, to connect better with the people she was getting to know through her teaching. She had read my short stories, she said, and passed them on to others. A few years later, early in my time with Save the Children, I was sent to talk to a group of volunteer fundraisers in her area about the work they were helping to support. She and her husband were among them, but I was meeting so many new people in those years that I hardly remember it. And those were our only meetings until a couple of years ago I had a phone call from her. It was so unexpected it took a few moments for me to register who this was — I got confused with another Anne from those English teaching days whom I also hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. She said, ‘I’m sorry, I dialled your number by mistake. I was trying to phone someone else.’ She was about to ring off but something in her voice made me keep her there, talking. I asked how she was. ‘Actually not very well,’ she said, ‘I’ve just been given a diagnosis of terminal illness.’ We talked some more — I can’t remember what, it just seemed important to keep going.
A year later her name popped up unexpectedly again, in response to a post I had put up on FaceBook. It was during lockdown and I’d offered to talk to Book Groups on zoom. I’d not even been aware that she was on FaceBook. Yes please, she said, her book group would love to have me. In the emails and a phone chat that followed I discovered that she had been reading my books all these years, and loved them. As we made arrangements she gave no indication that she was dealing with anything difficult — illness, chemo therapy, let alone that her life was running out. Had I imagined it? Was it after all the other Anne who had phoned me by mistake that time? Or was it her, and was she in remission? I didn’t ask. We had the zoom Book Group session – six women, three Muslim, three Christian. Warm, interested, appreciative. So brief an encounter, yet for that evening I felt part of them, welcomed in.
Soon she was emailing suggesting a similar zoom session with another reading group and a local Refugee Action Group. She put me in touch with the organisers, handed over to them. Two weeks before it was due to happen I heard from her husband that she had died. She had indeed been ill all this time, had known in her own group’s session that she was only months away from the end —and still she found the inner energy to keep initiating, to link me to these other lives.
As I watch the faces looking out at me from the screen, listening attentively, Anne’s being is everywhere. All of our journeys connect for this brief moment.
Thanks to Tania, Harri & members of Marlow Refugee Action for hosting the event. You can read about what they do at ww.marlowrefugeeaction.org.uk The photo is of the tent city on the Greek island Samos, where over 7000 refugees live in a camp built for 700; and where several of the Marlow group’s members have volunteered.
I’m being interviewed about Journeys Without a Map online at the Islamabad Literary Festival on Saturday 30th October. It’s at 11 a.m. Pakistan time but will be recorded, so you can listen to it at a suitable time elsewhere. And I’ll be there in person at the Blue Bear Bookshop, Farnham, UK, on Sunday 7th November at 3 p.m. If you live nearby, do join us.
You can order the book from any bookshop in the UK, and internationally from The Book Depository (post free.) Also available in e-book. I’d love to hear from you if you are reading it.