1. I often dream of the house in which I grew up. It was Victorian with four storeys, on a quiet street in Islington. My bedroom was on the top floor. I slept on my parents’ marital mattress: a Heal’s mega-king-sized, squashed between wall and table on a too-small frame. I spent many hours lying on it, smoking, watching TV in the dark, eating oranges.
2. Today I wake in my own marital bed to my children, the rustle of my son’s nappy as he stands at the door waiting to be invited in. We have a rule in our house – a new rule – that there should be no shouting, NO SOUND before 7am on a weekend. Really, it should be 8am. Or 9am, though I haven’t slept until 9am for seven years.
3. I liked sleeping in my parents’ marital bed. They separated when I was six and my dad ran away to a hippy commune. He was reborn, he said, and my brother and I were not really part of his new life. I missed him.
4. This Sunday we get up early, because my husband is going for a run. He is training for his second marathon. The moment he returns, I fly out of the door to my exercise class in the park. I ask my instructor if he’s coming to my 40th birthday party, and his baby-faced friend appears shocked by the big number.
5. I didn’t exercise much as a child. PE at school was an excuse to bunk lessons. I went to an inner-city school, so we had to sit on a coach for an hour to get to a field. I felt sick by the time we got there, and too cold to put on my green skirt and matching pants.
6. While driving home, I am reminded that 40 does sound big. Verging on middle age, turning the corner, past your best. But that’s not how I see it at all.
7. Our house in Islington was full of fashion magazines: Vogue, Cosmo, Harpers & Queen. It wasn’t pop stars that covered my walls, but models. I spent hours gazing at their beautiful faces. It was the dawn of the supermodel: Christi Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell. When I was ten or eleven, I announced to my mum that I wanted to be a model. She was getting into the car at the time. She stopped and said, ‘Do you really?’ I nodded. ‘But you have to be really tall.’ I looked down at my body.
8. When I was 15, I started going clubbing. When my friend and I waited in the queue, we squeezed our fingers together and recited our made-up date of birth. The bouncers knew we were young, but they let us in. We were pretty and our hair was long and blonde. I met a man called Nigel there. He was 32.
9. My daughter is seven. My son is four. They wait with their dad at our local market, which is buzzing in the autumn sun. We have coffee and buy a chicken, a couple of rice balls to snack on. We talk to locals. I buy pippin apples, red and sweet. I can’t resist a slab of oozy, sticky Gorgonzola.
10. Nigel was a hairdresser and a dancer. He was small and wore 70s-style nylon shirts with pointed collars over leggings, shiny black boots. His hair was twisted into wormy dreads and he smelt of coconut oil. We danced together. I told him I was 16.
11. When we get home I dig into the cheese. Cheese on crackers, a bit of cured ham, an apple. I am hungry. I tidy up breakfast, prepare for supper, while responding to my children’s needs. The newspaper remains unread on the counter. I have forgotten what it feels like to have a Sunday, a rest day.
12. Nigel told me I could be a hair model. He took me to Vidal Sassoon and I sat in the waiting room as the Japanese students filed in. I didn’t mind sitting on the stage, but I didn’t like the hairdresser who was tall and lean, and backcombed my hair so much it made me cry.
13. My son wants to knock a nail into a piece of wood. I am firm with my daughter that she writes thank you cards for her recent birthday, but she also wants to do woodwork. With their dad, they form a triangle on the lawn and sing and laugh as they hammer.
14. The chicken is cooked and the kids have stopped woodwork, the table cleared. My daughter likes to be busy and she lays the table, with cutlery, water and glasses. I pass her the bowls of steaming vegetables.
15. I resisted eating when I was with him. Sometimes I ate so little that I almost fainted. I tested myself, noticed how after a while the hunger goes away.
16. Roast chicken is our favourite meal. We have it most Sundays. My son likes my gravy. It makes me happy.
17. One night I lay in his bed and heard a woman’s voice on the answerphone. She was demanding he pick up. She was crying. She told him she was pregnant. He denied it of course, but I left anyway. I got a taxi home and cried in the bath. I told my mother to promise she would never let me see him again.
18. Bathed and in his pyjamas, my son is warm. I crawl into his bed, lit up by the standing lamp, the rest of the room in darkness. I read him a story, then another, and another. He snuggles up to me and tells me he loves me.
19. I slept alone after that. I tried to stay single. I spent many nights in my big bed.
20. I kiss my children goodnight and go downstairs to the living room. I read the paper. Order a book about an artist I like.
21. I went to clubs on my own. I’d find a space in the corner to dance. My head down, hips rocking. Sometimes people laughed at me, but mostly they left me alone.
22. My local bookshop gave me a book: it’s called Virago is 40 – A Celebration. First published the year I was born. In it, Amanda Coe writes about the A40 and how the only time her dad drove her to university, he took the wrong road – funny as my dad did the same. Driving me to Manchester for my first day of university, only we ended up in Leeds.
23. In my 20s, I trained for the New York Marathon. Two weeks before, I went to a beach party on the Gower. My best friend and I lay in a sand dune and I put my legs in the air. ‘Do they look strong?’ I asked, flexing. She watched my legs making scissors through the sky. Five hours later, one of them was broken. I was alone in the dark and it looked like my leg belonged to someone else. I lay on my back in the cold sand and kept slipping away. People shouted and clapped, right in my face. ‘Stay awake,’ they said. ‘Keep your fucking eyes open.’
24. I’m pleased to read that Linda Grant was given her first book commission aged 40.
25. I had a panic attack. It was the first time I went on the Underground on my crutches. When the train pulled into the station I froze. The train doors opened and I stared at the platform, willing my arms to use the crutches, my legs to follow.
26. I send an email reminding people to RSVP for my 40th Birthday party, and to request a song they’d like to dance to. People joke saying they haven’t danced in years and I want to shout at them: Why not dance at 40? Why stop yourself doing anything at 40?
27. Soon after my accident, I started writing stories again. I had written nothing fictional since I was a child: aged ten, eleven, twelve, when I carried a notebook everywhere, and spent my lunch break in the library, writing passionate rambling family dramas, to myself, to no one.
28. I drink Night Time tea and put the cats to bed in the kitchen, leave the tidying up for the next day, and walk slowly to bed.
29. My first grown-up story was called Slow Burn. Staged in a car, it was about road rage. I wrote it quickly and I read it over and over. I held it to my heart.
30. I brush my teeth and wash my face and stare at myself in the mirror. I check the colour of my teeth, my faint frown marks, the slight discolouration of my skin. I am nearly 40.
31. I did a Masters and wrote my first novel.
32. I crawl into bed. My husband is reading the New Statesman. I pick up Deborah Levy’s essay, a kind of memoir, which I have been savouring. She writes: ‘To become a writer I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice, which is not loud at all.’
33. For which I got a distinction.
34. I sleep.
35. And a publisher.
36. I dream of a house, and in that house there is a bed, and on that bed is a girl who eats oranges.
37. I had babies.
38. My children grew up.
39. And my life began.
40. At forty.