The Lost Years
I am sitting in a café, called The Elephant House, next to my beautiful husband. The waiter
has just cleared away our dishes, and Gavin, who is my age, 33, is now peering into his
laptop, as I am into mine. He is writing a children’s story about a cat and a dog’s adventures.
Gavin is essentially a creature-comfort loving hobbit with latent Viking tendencies towards
wanting to take over the world. These surface at random, and require taming, through
stroking. We are sharing a pot of tea, and looking forward to a slice of carrot cake, his
favourite, to reward ourselves when we finish. We are surrounded by elephant artefacts and
‘Isn’t that amazing?’ Gavin says and points.
I look to where he is pointing, an A1 sized close up photo of an elephant. Very striking. I
think to myself, that what I have in common with the elephants is that I also have a good
memory, as I remember the ten years, on and off, with false starts and course changes, that I
spent battling illness and studying for degree. I remember how life at the time was not so
idyllic. I couldn’t afford carrot cake; I didn’t have anyone to enjoy it with anyway. It was a
long and difficult journey at a time of much confusion, chaos and madness, which I am still
trying to make sense of.
A life reading in a library surrounded by books was a dream. Therefore I accepted an offer at
a major university to study English Literature when I was 18. However I got terribly lost
along the way, but at the same time got to read all the great classics, like Jane Eyre, Jane
Austen, The Canterbury Tales, Aphra Benn.
I arrived at university at 19, a year later than everyone else, due to mental illness, and didn’t
feel like I fitted in.Plus I couldn’t be open about my illness. My life was already following
the mapped out plan it was supposed to. I went to the pub with the girls from my floor in
halls during Fresher’s week but just sat lost in my own thoughts, worried about how I was
perceived, and having nothing to say. Maybe I was shy, maybe I was paranoid. I’d been to
pubs before of course, but I’d started after a while not feeling part of things. Perhaps that’s
when my illness got triggered, and had been brewing due to my family background.
I’d wanted to leave home for as long as I could remember. I thought of it just as a house, and
not a home, and when my plans got scuppered due to mental illness I felt even more useless
and worthless, as this is how my mother tried to make me feel through her constant criticism.
I spent that year doing nothing much, but seeing a lot of medical staff at my home, who my
mother ended up spending more time with than me. That kind of attention felt like a violation
of my private life.
So when I had to wait an extra year to get to university, due to illness, and then when I
decided to return home after the Christmas break, as I had spent it in hospital,which I didn’t
think I deserved. I felt I was going backwards. It was constant conflict with my mother about
the tidying-up probably, and going out. I was only there for a few days, until I decided to run
away to London, where I made friends to stay with. One of these decided I was ill, and he put
me in hospital. They returned me to Birmingham, and my frustrating mother. I was just going
round in circles.
After these few months in hospital where not totally wasted. I met Nadine, my best friend for
many years. I was finally making progress in my personal life. As well as Nadine, my father
allowed me to stay with him. Granted, my father only lived next door to my mother, and they
often saw each other. As well as this he had been strict and dominating when I was a child,
but now he had mellowed with age. He never asked what time I got in at night, for example.
Although my personal life improved, my professional life was at a standstill and I felt
frustrated, as the doctor was not allowing me to return to university just yet.
As I sit here, Gavin sees me staring into space, and says to me
‘Can we have that cake yet?’
‘Not yet darling, but I haven’t forgotten. There are a lot of things I’m in the middle of
remembering, and I’m realising how I’m lucky to be able to bring such a special person to a
special place. I was here before all the troubles of the lost years.’
‘Remind me Amy’.
‘Just like the elephants, I remember. I remember the first time I was here. The year before
my illness began; I was here from England with friends from school and my communist
group. We were at the festival, talking to people about politics, and stayed at Marcus’s flat.
He worked here, we’d come here for coffee and he’d bring home cakes that hadn’t sold that
‘Sounds like you had a really good time’.
‘That life seemed so far away and out of reach during the lost years, but it’s returned in a
different form, this setting is still here though. Because of all the stuff I’ve been through, It
enables me to value what I have more, especially you, the special person I can share it with’.
I did return to university eventually, a year later, and in better spirits. I think I was on my way
to becoming socialised by now, I had been a very shy as a child and I had to grow out of it.
This time the problem was with a boy. This infatuation was to direct my life for the next few
years. A group of us went for a drink on my 21st birthday. Ben also came.
Happy Birthday Amy, he said.
Thanks Ben. ‘Oh Hi Sarah,’ I said.
Hi everyone, Ben, Can we go and talk a minute, about my psychology project, she said straightaway.
She took him home at the end of the night, or attempted to. A couple of weeks later he rang me.
‘Sarah dumped me. Can we go for a drink?’
I don’t know about how he felt. We never discussed our feelings. I hid my feelings until they
began to confuse me, and then consume me, to the extent I found it hard to study and
concentrate. Therefore I decided to transfer universities.
A year later we were back in touch, through the internet. It was the summer holidays but I
had no money and started feeling isolated, a bad sign for me. I wasn’t one to discuss my
feelings, but let them overwhelm and confuse me. Lack of money’s a typical student
problem, but it meant I could hardly afford food. I borrowed from Stewart, my friend down
south, and took out a small credit card loan.
I’d been looking forward to time abroad since the beginning of my university career and now
was the time, between my second and third year. I returned the form and waited for my exam
grades at the end of January. I had had a tough time emotionally, this guy I was writing to
had stopped writing just before Christmas and exams. My student loan had ngot delayed
for that term and I’d had to borrow again. I got miserable and confused. I had therefore failed
one of my exams, and the professor refused to sign the consent form for Vienna. I went
Vienna accepted me as an informal student but I didn’t enjoy it. I did a lot of
travelling, as well as attending lectures, but on a shoestring. The police were constantly
asking for my passport everywhere I went. On the train to Prague, at the Czech border, the
police asked me:
‘Can vee see your passeport?’
‘I’m not a terrorist’.
Do you have visa?
‘I don’t need a visa’
‘Do you have visa card?
I showed them my bank card.
‘Vee vill check your passeport, you vait’.
Half an hour later they asked me to leave the train.
Back at Vienna station as I was attempting to get a refund on the ticket, when a young black
man came up to me, and said the same thing had happened to him several times, but he’d kept
trying and finally succeeded in getting to Prague.
One day I had my bag stolen with my passport, and then the police did on of their spot checks
on me, as was often the case while I was travelling in Europe. They took me to prison for not
having my passport. They refused me a lawyer or a call to the embassy. I’d already informed
the embassy about my stolen passport. After four days, a nice lady from a human rights
organisation came to see me.
She looked at me lying on the floor covered in a sheet in the dark cell, and said:
‘I’m from the Vienna Human Rights organisation, I can help you. ‘She was a mother
figure come to fetch me from the orphanage.
I told her the situation with my passport and the next day someone came from the embassy
and took me back to their offices for a temporary passport. He asked if I wanted to stay or
leave, I had enough and decided to leave, so between him and the nice lady they sorted out a
coach trip for me. On this trip I did not get any hassle by the border police so it was quite
After I returned I had to stay with my parents.For financial reasons to fund the trip to
Vienna, I’d given up my rented flat at university. Initially my mother said I had to stay with
her, but after a couple of weeks my mother began to suffocate and frustrate me so I just
moved with my father.
‘Oh God’, she would rant, I’m dying, please give strength, I must go to doctor, oh my leg.
There was nothing the matter with her as far as I could see.
‘Why you no get job? ‘
She’d never worked in her entire life, I’d had part time jobs, and I knew how hard it is to get
‘You must pray to our lord god almighty,’ she would preach, again and again.
After I moved in with my father, I stopped speaking to my mother, especially as
she was always coming round and shouting at my father about nothing in particular and it
was upsetting me. She put me in hospital again. My father would have agreed with her.
In hospital, I rang up my father:
‘Can I stay with you when I get out?’
‘Of course’ he said.
My mother said to the doctor at a meeting, ‘She can stay at my home.’ She was a weed that
kept growing back, bigger, despite the harsh chemicals.
I didn’t think so. She wasn’t getting the message. I had been refusing to see her for a couple
of months. She kept coming, every day. I would see my sister however. She was 20.
‘Can’t you come on your own?’ I’d say to her.
I hadn’t wanted her at the meeting, but the doctor forced me to, saying I wouldn’t be
I returned to university a term later, where I failed another exam. I was still ill I think. I was
pestering Ben, via email. I was feeling very confused and couldn’t concentrate my mind on
anything. None of my old friends were around, having graduated. I was feeling isolated
again. I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped in my exams either. perhaps my mind had gone due
to my illness, I thought.
I’d been one of the top students at my school at GCSE. So I decided to leave and try my
chances as a journalist in London.
I was working freelance; it was more like a bit of training with a newspaper when I fell
out with a flatmate. I couldn’t stay there and as wasn’t earning any money yet, and didn’t
know when and if my adventure would bear fruit. I knew I needed proper professional
training and qualifications. By this time my dad had been ill and moved abroad to be with
family, and I decided to stay at his house. I gave up smoking due to lack of money and wrote
poetry and read books, such as Homer’s Iliad. My sister living next door would cook dinner
every night. My mother was abroad to be with my father as he neared the end of his life. It
was winter that spring I learned the newspaper I had written for children had gone on sale. I
got no credit. I later talked to a lawyer, who wanted to see proof. However I had lost the
disk and my laptop got thrown out because it was broken.
After being at home for nine months, I went to visit this young man at his work. I had been
emailing him a lot and he wasn’t happy. I ended up in hospital again, where I met my future
husband. He was wearing a massive pair of jeans, and holding them up, as he wasn’t allowed
a belt on the ward. He also had a Mohican, and ended up telling me the story about how he
had run away for two weeks, and got into a scrape against a gang of young men. This was
five years ago. Gavin supported me in completing the final module of my degree, 10 years
after I first began it, just by being there, and being my best friend. We got married a couple
of years later.
Now, sitting in the Elephant House, Gavin is wearing a black shirt with tiny red flowers, and
dark jeans which fit. The flowers which have grown upon him attracted to his warmth. His
blond hair is shoulder-length and he is wearing a smile. He has made the lost years mean
something. He has supported me through the journalism postgraduate which I am
successfully halfway through. It is a pleasure to support him through his ups and downs and
his various ventures, such as his furniture studies which had to be put on hold due to illness.
Now he is a practising cabinet-maker. I can now feel a sense of belonging and security. I can
feel part of society and the self-respect and be able to contribute to it. Of course there are still
problems, but they are manageable. The fact that there is now love in my life has enabled me
to live it, and enjoy it, and I hope it keeps the illness away for good.
‘Now, time for that cake, Gav.I remembered,’ I say.
‘Finally Amy. Garcon!’
The most difficult part of this short story was the timing. I did not want to use a linear
narrative but try something that would better catch the reader’s attention and as Greenwell in
Time and Timing (2009) says, it was not easy: ‘The business of the progression of time
seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.’ (P.257) I
decided in the end to write a parallel structure, with the present and past alternating, and a
vaguely linear structure of the past story starting from the beginning to the present. This was
also difficult because I wanted to write about a period of ten years of my life, as a piece of
life writing. I wanted to plan it as a theme of universal interest, although it did help me make
sense of a confusing time of my life. I wanted to show an audience how hurdles could be
Due to its time span, I decided to pick certain important episodes, and treat them with
differing lengths to show their relevance. I wanted to link the episodes with the thread of
mental illness, but there are other themes as well, such as family problems and money.
Initially I wanted to have a separate section for each subject, and link it with indispersed
sections focusing on one theme. However the sections became more blurred as the subjects
were all entertwined. So I made sure I related each section to mental illness, the overall
theme. The danger was too much material and I really had to narrow it down.
I started the story in the present, to show where I am, then to show the struggle of how I got
there, through flashbacks. I am reminiscing, so in a way I haven’t actually gone anywhere,
but ended up where I supposed to be anyway, but in a roundabout unusual way. This is
highlighted by the episode in the middle of the story, of me being having a flashback to that
exact same place at the beginning, before all the problems began. The setting of the Elephant
House links the story, and is a constant and a parallel to the unfolding story of the past.
I didn’t alter the characters much, except to highlight certain traits to differentiate them. I
used analogy to illustrate this, which is more a poetic technique, for example describing my
mother as a weed. I also made the dialogue relevant. For example making the Czechs have
European accents, and my mother‘s syntax sound foreign.
I wrote in the present tense, which goes into the past tense, tells the story from the beginning,
with the present setting in the centre of the story. The end is back in the present, 5 years after
the lost period. I wanted to include more variety in how I structured this, and I think I needed
to do more planning. Greenwell (p.257) says his progression of time problem ‘stumped me
for a whole year’, and I would also have liked to add density by playing with structure more.
I wrote in the first person in order to create a feeling of intimacy and bring the audience
closer to the writer. The audience also engages in the universal themes of madness, suffering,
financial problems and racism, for example, but can feel the security of the writer reminiscing
and that distance helps them see it from a more objective perspective and therefore makes it
easier to understand and relate to. I wanted to write it this way to show the happy ending, and
the feeling of hope, as Liz Jansen says on CD3, (1998). ‘otherwise you have depressed the
reader’. She wants the reader to be left with a good feeling after reading a story. I gave the
impression that the illness can recur, but everthything is currently positive,’
Greenwell, B (2009) in Time and Timing, in Neale, D (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook. London: A and C Black
CD 3-Research, Structure and Style. (2008) The Open University.