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Jon Ransom's letter to his 16-year-old self: 'It's about to get rough. There's no way around it'

Writer Jon Ransom reflects on a lightbulb moment that took him from grief-stricken teenager to published author.

Jon Ransom illustration

Illustration by Eleanor Bannister

Dear Jon,

It won’t matter how far you pedal your pushbike along the riverbank. A big sky grazing your head along the way. You’ll never dodge being different. Unlike those shirtless lads with sunburnt shoulders, kicking a ball about on the field behind your yard. Where the line is rammed with washing, and lilac hugs the wall. Not the same as your brothers, who pulled on their soldier’s uniforms and left you behind. You’re you. You’re funny. You’re 16 years old. That restlessness that keeps you up all night, when the moon is as bright as a dinner plate licked clean, won’t last for ever. Because it’s more than the mess whirling around inside your head. It’s limbs getting longer, hair growing like grass, and an ache in your underpants that’s normal. Trust me. It’s all right. I’m there too. 

And then there’s your sister, who knows everything you don’t. Girls are clever like that. She won’t mind when you lie on her bed, desiring handsome lads she’s torn from magazines and tacked to the wall. Shiny pins like a constellation from here to there. You will get there sooner than later. A place where the posters aren’t print any more, instead lively lads, with hasty hands and hooded eyes that can’t hide their sameness. Don’t be disappointed that Keanu Reeves won’t be one of them. Or that he gets even hotter. I know; some things will never be fair. Though you’ll love a lot. And for a long while the world will stretch out ahead, a road running towards all the reckless mistakes you’re meant to make. These lessons that come again and again, like wild weather busting in from the Wash, getting beneath your skin. Reminding you to laugh out loud. To grab all of it. Suck down every second. 

Because it’s about to get rough. There’s no way around it. Big breath. Mum dies on a Thursday. Sudden as a thunderclap and just as bewildering. You’ll hate Thursdays, until you don’t. Sleep a lot. Drift through the stories collected in your head that wrap around you like the river, always taking you home. Keep writing them down. Though she’s gone, you’ll see her in purple flowers everywhere. And quiet skies at dawn. Grief makes you strong in a way lifting weights won’t. Younger you wouldn’t be ready for what’s
gathering on the horizon, but you’re braver now. 

Dad’s dying. The doctor says he has cancer everywhere at once, like he’s forecasting the weather. He’ll take the truth quietly. Without wondering why. For a time you carry him with a surprising softness. And when his eyes forget their colour and he is more still than any stone you’ve ever held in the palm of your hand, suddenly you’ll see what it means to be a father. The feeling is fleeting. Write about it. Alongside all the other words you have gathered on your mobile phone. These stories will become the gravity that keeps you down. So grief doesn’t steal you away. The more you write, the less you hurt. 

And when one day, standing like an idiot staring through the glass that’s covered in clouds galloping across the sky behind, you’ll get an idea. What if I could write a book? You can. Even better; you will. Your fractured thoughts will slide about like a plastic bottle rolling along the dirty aisle of the Citi 4
while riding to work. But you’ll not mind being on the bus. Instead, there’s a keenness about these words, the way they taste and smell and sound. You’re now a magician. Conjuring whales that whisper, and wash up on empty shores. 

The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom is out now
(Muswell Press, £9.99)

Four years from that window, on a Thursday in February, your book will be published. Thursday’s aren’t so bad any more. Day after, you’ll take a train to London, walk into the bookshop you’ve admired as a magpie might a silver coin, wondering what that tugging feeling is all about. Something stirring beneath the surface. Two-hundred and twenty-nine pages of words that fell out of your head are bound inside a pleasing cover depicting a lad who’s a little bit like you. Above him, your name. Properly printed. That’s when you’ll feel it again, standing there. Seeing your book on the shelf alongside writers you admire. Something rushing in all at once. Filling you up. At first, it’s hard to say exactly what it is. Then you know. You’re proud. Proud to be your parents’ son. Proud to be queer. Proud to have made it this far, now you’re a writer.

Love from Me You Us.

Follow Jon Ransom on Twitter

You can buy The Whale Tattoo from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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