It was over the Christmas period when Marcia was writing The Christmas Angel that my eye condition suddenly took a turn for the worse. On day one – which was Boxing Day – it was as if a curtain was being drawn across my right eye so that I could see only out of half of it. The next morning and I could see nothing at all out if that eye and was relying on my already pretty useless left eye to see anything.
Because of the eye probkems I had, I was on the books of an eye specialist at Barnstaple Hospital and so Marcia telephoned the hospital only to find that the eye department was closed between Christmas Day and New Year. Not what we wanted to hear. Then Marcia remembered that she had the number of my specialist’s secretary’s direct telephone line and, much more in hope that anything else, she tried calling it. To her amazement the secretary immediately answered and so, to cut a long story short, Marcia drive the 45 miles from home to Barnstaple where I was seen by the emergency oculist who diagnosed a total displacement of the retina, telephoned one of the area’s leading eye surgeons WHO WAS AT HOME and arranged for me to be seen in hia clinic in Exeter tge following morning. Back home and off first thing next morning to drive the 45 miles to Exeter where the diagnosis was confirmed and I was checked to make sure I was fit enough for surgery which was to take place the next afternoon if I was. Then Marcia home again, back to Exeter next day to drop me off, home again and back the next day to pick me up. Over those four days she had driven a total of 360 miles.
The operation was a success although it did cause a rapid deterioration in the other condition so now neither of my eyes was up to the required standard for driving which was, of course, to mean the end of an era. Althouh after more treatment and another operation eighteen months later I waa able to drive again, I never really regained my confidence and have always been very careful to drive only in good visibility and on the quietest possible roads.
Then we had to decide what to do with the old Transit camper van. After years of driving in narrow lanes and over impossible bridges (Robber’s Bridge on Exmoor measures at its narrowist exactly one and a half inches more that the width of the van and, as the lane there runs parallel with the river both upstream and downstream the bridge is approached at a very difficult angle no matted which was you are going) she was much battered and, having covered just over a hundred thousand miles, there were various bits that needed to be replaced. I had intended to have her given a face lift in the spring but that seemed a bit silly so we bid her a fond farewell.
Thus it was that when the time came to starg work on tne next book, everything was completey different. Marcia’s usual approach – sitting brooding and soaking in the vibes as I drove us arou d was not going to happen. Nevertheless there was a flicker of ‘place’ in Marcia’s mind. She was seeing a marsh alongside a river somewhere – a wide river valley so the ‘place’ seemed to be surrounded by huge skies. However, at that time she was much more concerned to ensure that we did everything possible to give my eyes the best possible chance. The operatkon had left me with no liquid in my eyeball and to ensure that the retina settled as well as possible I had to keep as still as possible staring face downwards unril it refilled. Then there were the drops and so on and she was determined that each and everyone was adminstered without fail and at the right time.
As she says now, she was in denial as far as the book was concerned and was doing everything she could to ignore the ideas pressing in on her.
Then matters took the first positive step forwards. In those days we were in the habit of doing The Times Two crossword (that’s the one for dumbos – not the proper Times crossword) while we ate breakfast. 1 down wanted the name of a river that met various criteria – I forget what – and the answer was, clearly, TAMAR. Then there was 4 across (which started with the M inTamar), ‘a wet area where reeds and such like grow.’ Obviously MARSH.
For some reason, Marcia resisted both these answers and kept looking for others. In the end she gave in. ‘Are there any marshes on the River Tamar,’ she asked. ‘Well, yes.’ I replied, ‘Quite a lot. Why?’
At that point she told me what had been in her mind and it is a matter of record that later that day we were exploring some if the marshes on the Tamar. It is a rather daunting thought that if the Times had not published that crossword or if for some reason we had not seen it, there would have been no Sea Garden. Anyway, the location suited us very well. it was not too far from home so Marcia was quite happy to do all the driving. Don’t get the wrong idea here: as a general rule, Marcia loves driving (and is very good at it) but when ‘book brooding’ she likes me to drive so that she can let her mind run free. Well that summer this was not an option.
We explored both banks of theTamar but kept on coming back to the east bank just south of Weir Quay and nearly opposite Cargreen in Cornwall. Here it was easy to park off the road and wd spent many hours down there as Marcia and Jossie – the latest and, as it turned out, the last of our dog companions – pottered off: Marcia to chat with het characters and Jossie to return coated in mud.
I was more than happy. Although the bird populations here are not huge (like they are on the Exe) between the birds and the boats there was always something of interest to watch and to photograph.