Living with a stranger: my bipolar husband's darkest days
Crime writer Ann Cleeves talks of her husband's illness and saying goodbye for the last time
In March I flew into Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in the UK, in an eight-seater inter-island plane. I was travelling with Ingirid, one of my closest friends, who’d married a Shetlander and run a croft in Fair Isle.
When we’d planned the trip, I hadn’t expected to be emotional – usually I’m good at keeping my feelings in check - but I cried all the way there, keeping the tears silent because I didn’t want to upset the children on the flight.
I’d come back to remember. Fair Isle is small – 5km long and a kilometre and a half wide – but with a hill and cliffs and so many inlets and gullies that even after two seasons of working there, I didn’t feel I knew it all. I’d met my husband, Tim, on the Isle; he’d proposed to me there in 1976. Or, I’d proposed to him – we’d been drinking with a couple of Glaswegian lighthouse keepers in their accommodation at the north of the island, and everything was a bit blurred as we walked home.
He did ask me properly the following day. We were riding on a pile of hay back to the croft, where he helped out in return for home brew and food. I was cooking in the bird observatory, feeding the birders, scientists, the ringers and the workmen who were installing a radio mast on the hill. I’d found myself in Fair Isle quite by chance. I’d dropped out of university, unsettled by my gap year working with inner-city kids, and I needed to escape London.
A conversation in a pub in Putney led to my being offered the post of assistant cook in the observatory. I wasn’t quite sure where Fair Isle was then, I couldn’t cook and knew nothing about birds, but I thought it would be an adventure. I was just 20, and everything’s an adventure then.
Tim had turned up during my first autumn, one of the twitchers who arrived in the hope of seeing rare birds. He wore the same dreadful purple jumper all week, a waxed jacket and a round Fair Isle hat. He was not long back from travelling overland to India, crossing countries that would be impossible today (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan) in an ancient Land Rover with three friends, hoping not to find himself but the birds it would only be possible to see in those places.
I loved his kindness and his enthusiasm. His vulnerability. He wasn’t a macho adventurer, but self-deprecating and gentle, and very funny. He’d spent time in a psychiatric hospital suffering depression as a teenager. Travelling to India, he said, had been his salvation. Over the years, Shetland became mine. I returned to Fair Isle the following year, Tim came too, and that’s when we decided on marriage. We never lived there again, but it remained a special place for us both.
The first Shetland novel didn’t appear until 30 years later, and that was down to Tim, too. It was mid-winter and a rare bird had appeared on a loch in Lerwick, the islands’ main town. We lived in Yorkshire then; Tim was working as a conservation officer with the RSPB and we had two grown-up daughters. We went for the day to see it, sailing overnight from Aberdeen, sleeping in the bar on the floor because we couldn’t afford a cabin. When we arrived, it was still dark outside; clear, cold and windless. After seeing the bird, we spent the day with friends; the air was icy, thin.
Everywhere we went there were ravens; the sky dancing, very black against the snow. I was a crime writer – I'd been published for nearly 20 years at that point – and it occurred to me that if there were blood, too, the scene would be mythic. Raven Black was born, and it changed my writing career. I created Jimmy Perez as my central character. He was a Fair Islander, an outsider, a bit sad, dark-haired and dark-eyed. My friend Jimmy Stout claims that he’s the basis for Jimmy Perez, but the uncertain, kind, empathetic character is probably most influenced by Tim.
My husband was never a loner, though. Even if he was depressed, he gathered people around him. He made them feel good, and they loved him for it. In the nineties he had dark times, another period of depression so acute that it led to psychotic episodes, and another hospital admission. It was like living with a stranger. In desperation I took him, and our daughters, who were still young then, back to Fair Isle. My sanctuary. We stayed with friends, an older couple, who fed us wonderfully; we sat in croft house kitchens drinking tea, talking about sheep and fish. He went birding with the observatory warden, while my girls played with Ingirid’s three daughters.
Magically, after a couple of weeks there, Tim became himself again. By the time Raven Black was published in the early noughties, Tim was quite well. He’d been properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated, and the racing thoughts and deep sadness never returned. He was back at work, as happy as he’d ever been, contributing to a field guide for the RSPB and a book about rare birds.
He was delighted by my success. When Raven Black won the CWA Gold Dagger we bought a new pair of binoculars for him with the prize money. He took early retirement and we moved back to north-east England and he gathered a new gang of friends, and caught up with old ones. Just before Christmas last year, my lovely, funny husband died after a brief illness.
He was still laughing, still telling stories. Still travelling. We went to Bolivia for my 60th birthday and Tanzania for our 40th wedding anniversary, and there were plans for Morocco and France in the spring. I was working on the proofs of Wild Fire, the last Shetland book, when Tim died and it was good to have something meticulous, numbing, to escape into.
It felt as if a chapter in my life had ended, that my relationship with Shetland and my relationship with Tim had become twisted together like spun yarn, and both had suddenly snapped.
So in March I returned, flying into Fair Isle again. Ingirid and I were there to say goodbye to the couple who’d looked after my family and seen Tim through his depression. We knew they were moving away from the island and wanted to see them on the Isle for one last time. Trapped by the weather, we stayed longer than we’d planned and caught up with everyone there. It was a chance to share memories of Tim.
The delay meant we were in the Isle for the airing of the last episode of the Shetland TV drama starring Dougie Henshall, and I was delighted to hear that a new series is now planned. It’s good to know that Perez will live on, even though there will be no more books. And, of course, I’ll still visit Shetland. It’s woven into the fabric of my life.
• Ann Cleeves has set up a Just Giving page for Mind (Tyneside) in the wake of Tim's death.
– © The Daily Telegraph