Book: The Owl at the Window by Carl Gorham
PUBLISHED: 11:42 24 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:28 24 January 2017
Scriptwriter Carl Gorham talked to Rachel Buller about his heartrending, heartwarming book - and how his daughter's 'cardboard mummy' helped them learn to grieve
He has spent his life creating stories to be told through the voices of others – yet finding the words to tell his own tale of love, loss and life proved much harder.
Carl Gorham’s memoir The Owl at the Window is an emotional, searingly honest and blackly comic account of the devastation of losing someone you love.
It is 10 years since his wife Vikki died, leaving him as a single dad to their six-year-old miracle daughter Romy.
Carl, a comedy scriptwriter and creator of BBC series Stressed Eric, tells his story in a series of snapshots – of falling in love, of finding himself a single father and of finding light and macabre humour in the most devastating, unfathomable circumstances.
“Going back writing certain scenes was like reliving them which was incredibly hard. I still have an anxiety about the book about whether it was the right thing to do. A year after she died, I tried to write something to put in Romy’s memory box but I realised I wasn’t ready to write the story down,” he says.
“For the first year or so you are living in a world of total bereavement. Gradually, it becomes a little bit of a smaller part of your life but it never goes away. It is an ongoing process, and I have given Romy her own copy of the book which she can read when she is ready. I think there are bits she will find hard – there are bits I couldn’t read back. But I am already encouraged by the way it has opened up conversations with her friends.”
The family moved to the north Norfolk coast from London after Vikki was diagnosed with breast cancer, aged just 36, having fallen in love with the area during weekend visits while she was having chemotherapy.
“When we had Romy – which we never thought would be possible due to Vikki’s treatment – we started thinking about where we should send her to school. Should we send her to a hot-housing school in London or let her grow up here, playing on the beach? It seemed obvious so we decided to move here full time.”
When Vikki’s cancer returned, the family set about making the most of their time together, embarking on a number of adventures.
“We knew if her illness came back it was not going to go away. Vikki didn’t want all the checks, she didn’t want to know how long she had left; she wanted to live her life.”
“We had just enjoyed an amazing trip to Australia and were coming back via Hong Kong when she became ill, very suddenly on the plane.”
By the time they landed, she was taken by wheelchair off the plane and rushed to hospital, where she died.
“Initially they didn’t think it was the cancer, because it was so fast,” he says. “Looking back now it was crazy. I was there, on my own, with a six-year-old, in Hong Kong, with this terrible thing happening. When the doctors discovered the extent of the cancer, they couldn’t believe she had even made it to Australia. I think that very strong instinct to stay alive as long as possible for Romy kept her alive. The love of a mother for her child is very powerful. She wanted to eke out every day she could.”
Carl and Romy, now 15, have rebuilt their lives in north Norfolk in the house they shared with Vikki, a place she loved so much.
“When she died, Romy and I pulled each other along; one was the saviour to the other. The mundane demands of everyday life mean that you carry on; you have to look after your child. The energy and vitality of a child, their relentless optimism is infectious. But I was worried about Romy, she was only six, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. It is incredibly isolating.”
The introduction of ‘Cardboard Mummy’ into Carl and Romy’s lives was, he says, a major turning point in starting to understand the grieving process.
“Romy came home from school one day and wanted to build a mum out of cardboard. It was very crude, we had a cardboard box for a body, a smaller one for the head and some cardboard tubes as arms, and a face she drew stuck on it. But she would sit Cardboard Mummy at the table for meals, she would take her upstairs at bedtime and she became part of our lives, even being introduced to Romy’s friends. I spoke to a psychologist and they said to just go with it. But as her connection with Cardboard Mummy grew, so did my anxiety.
“It was both moving and upsetting but also mad and funny all at once – particularly when she would put Cardboard Mummy in the front seat of the car and put the seatbelt on when we were going out.”
But, he says, he came to realise it was a really important process which enabled Romy to begin to grieve.
“She wanted to take Cardboard Mummy in for show and tell at school. I was very worried about it, what the reaction of the other children might be, whether it might be too hard for Romy. But these were all of my anxieties not hers. The teacher said it was amazing as it enabled her to stand up and talk about her mummy dying, things which I was so worried she was keeping inside.
“Strangely after that, Cardboard Mummy began to take on less importance at home. We still have her in the loft though and we talk about her,” he smiles.
Such was the impact of the cardboard mummy; it inspired Carl to write a film script of the same name. It is a fictional version of his own experience, written before he wrote the book, and the film is currently in development.
Carl began his comedy writing career while studying at Oxford, joining the Revue, before forming a partnership with Amanda Swift – with whom he created the BBC radio show – Gorham and Swift. His television script writing credits include sitcoms Agony Again with Maureen Lipman, and Just A Gigolo with Tony Slattery, and BAFTA nominated adaptations of the Meg and Mog books for CITV. He also created, co wrote and produced the multi award winning cult BBC animated sitcom Stressed Eric which was broadcast in 20 countries.
It was at Oxford that Carl and Vikki first met and things didn’t initially look too promising.
“Our first date was pretty bad, I think we both found each other very annoying,” he laughs. “But I was very intrigued by her, she had a mysterious exotic air, and that was that, we were together.”
Carl Gorham will be at Jarrold in Norwich, Thursday February 9, 6pm, to launch The Owl at the Window. Tickets £5. www.jarrold.co.uk and at The Holt Bookshop on February 24, 6.30pm, £5, www.holtbookshop.co.uk
The Owl at the Window: A memoir of loss and hope by Carl Gorham is published on February 9 by Hodder and Stoughton.