Monthly Archives: September 2010

Telling Stories

Writing a book about real life is more difficult than I thought it would be.  Sometimes, I want to delete it all and begin writing something that’s as far removed from reality as possible. Tom keeps inspiring me. He’s still on picture books, but his attention span is growing and making room for longer stories, or a few short poems at bedtime. It’s the best part of the day, it’s my favourite bit of being a mum. Tom changes into his pyjamas and chooses one soft toy and one book, then clambers into bed. That’s the safest you can ever make them feel, when you tuck them up tight for the night, trying to fill their head with happy thoughts ahead of slumber. It probably does me good too, to enter that magical world. For ten minutes, bills, deadlines, dishes, hassle and stress leave my mind. It’s just me and Tom in the green gloom of his jungle bedroom and everything else is forgotten.

I loved Roald Dahl when I was a child and I love the fact that Tom is starting to like him too. Last week, he asked me if Dahl is dead and when I said yes, he looked sad and said “He’ll never write anything ever again, will he?”

It means a lot that Tom seems to understand the importance of fiction. His imagination is wild. I began writing stories when I was seven. I loved filling the cheap school notebooks that smelt like chippy paper, inventing characters and creatures and worlds. I used to miss that childhood inhibition where you don’t question whether something would happen in real life, you just grab a pencil and write it. I can see it brewing in Tom now and it’s exciting. He’s had this ‘invisible dog’ called Handsome since June. He lives in a winged kennel and they go on missions together rescuing people in trouble and cats stuck up trees. Tom knows the difference between reality and fantasy though; sometimes, if I ask him what Handsome’s up to, he goes “Come on Mum, you know he isn’t really here, he’s just my invisible dog.”

On Friday, as we walked home from the new school, Tom told me that he had seen a little boy crying for his Mum in the playground:

“I told him not to worry ‘cos he would see his Mum soon. Then I sat down on a broken log and told him a story.”

The story was an elaborate, action-packed tale about a restaurant invaded by purple, fire-breathing bugs. Apparently, it stopped the boy from crying.

Tonight, when I collected him from school, Tom said “I saw that boy again, crying for his Mum. So I sat down again on the broken log and told him another story.”

“What did you tell him this time?”

“He wanted one about dinosaurs, so I made one up.”

“Did he stop crying?”

“Yeah. My stories are the only way to stop him from crying now.”

I’m not sure how much of this ‘healing with stories” business is reality and how much is fantasy, but the sentiment behind it all, the broken log, the fact that Tom sees stories as a form of comfort – all of that is beautiful.

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Tap tap tap

Last night, the eve of Tom’s first day at school, I felt guilty for not being emotional. He’s been going to full-time nursery in a uniform for a year, why would this feel any different? Besides, I didn’t order his new jumper in time, so he wasn’t really going to be in proper uniform anyway. I bathed him and clipped his nails and read him Starting School by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Then it whacked me: I have a child of school age, he is almost five, how did that happen? He asked me if I was crying with happiness and I said yes, but I wasn’t sure what I was crying with really; not happiness or sadness but pride and disbelief (I think.). Starting school is a milestone and I felt vaguely that I wanted to share it with someone, to sit and flick through the baby album and talk about how fast it’s gone.

I have to write late at night, when I have finished work and Tom is in bed and (some of) the housework is done. I have to turn off my music to truly concentrate, so all I can hear is the clattering keyboard, the gerbils scurrying and stamping and now, the rain tapping on the window. Four weeks ago, my ears were filled with the constant sizzle of cicadas (and sea water.) That magical place inspired me to write. I need to keep up the momentum and it isn’t easy. Maybe it was being so far from reality that displaced me from it and made it easy to write about. The cicadas and the stars and the sea were my reality there, so perhaps the real-life story I am trying to write felt a little bit like fiction…

I’m writing at the dining table, which is beneath the front window, facing right out on to the street. Sometimes, for a split second, it sounds like the rain is somebody tapping at the window. I only have blinds, which are bent in one corner, so if someone wanted to, they could peer through the slats and see me sitting here writing. Of course, this is unlikely, but it still makes me feel a bit exposed. Which brings me to the issue of the book and the fear I get about writing down real life. There are so many people and conversations that are key to the story but that I don’t want to perpetuate on paper. It does feel weird, increasingly so. I had a baby, loads of people have babies every single day, it was ages ago, there is no story. But people keep telling me I make it interesting and I still get those thank you emails from scared mums-to-be.

I took a photograph of Tom on the doorstep this morning, wearing his polo shirt and grey trousers. It could be a photograph of any other day because of my cock-up with the uniform, but we’ll remember. He came out of school sporting two smiley face stickers, one star and his one-dimpled grin and I felt really proud. There is a story and I can share it. I just need to find away to write around the tricky bits.

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Elephant Woman

“You never forget a date you, do you?” A good friend of mine said recently, “You’re like the Elephant Man.”

Indeed, I am quite good at remembering dates and elephants never forget, but she meant Rain Man.

Some dates stick fast. When I wake on a morning and realise it’s an important date, I have to have a quick rummage around in my head and try to remember its significance. I know the birthday of just about everyone I have ever been reasonably close to. My memory is in surprisingly good nick.

So, I knew when I realised that today was the 5th September, that somewhere in the archives, it had been an important date. Turns out it was five years ago, and the date I went for my first scan at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. I met Mum opposite Whitworth Park and we passed the heavily-pregnant smokers in their dressing gowns and went inside the old maternity unit on Hathersage Road.

We went into the dark room and as the sonographer smothered my belly in that cold jelly, I worried it was twins. There was just the one though, loads more lively than I had expected, twirling around and waving.

“Ooh look,” said Mum, “There it is, we definitely know it’s real now!” And she sounded so excited that I wanted to hit her.

I bought a grainy picture and took it to work with me. It looked like scan photos always do, but it was quite a clear one and it said ‘11.1cm’ beneath it. I put it on my desk, because that’s what people do with scan photographs. I knew I was supposed to be excited but I was actually just really scared. The further in the past my naïve 22-year-old gets, the more surreal the fact I decided to have my baby seems. I wasn’t against the alternative, but I was petrified of how it would have left me feeling.

One of the things that has risen to the surface when I have been writing the book is how much I resented Mum for being excited about the baby when I couldn’t get used to the idea and I was the one who was going to have to give birth to it. In actual fact, Mum just had the wisdom to know that what I thought was the end of the world would probably be the making of me.

One week after the scan, I woke up and I had a little bump. That was around the time it became official, when I had to start telling people. I was doing a work placement in a press office and my boss asked me when I was going back to university.

“I’m going back next September.” I said.

He looked at me as if to say he’d heard that one before. I looked down. I had decided the bump was very noticeable that morning, when I saw my reflection in the window against a black tunnel on the underground train. It had been bothering me all day.

“I am taking the year out because I’m pregnant.”

He congratulated me, but I didn’t really feel as though congratulations were in order, I just felt like a bit of a fool.

People with children always go on about how quickly they grow but it’s true. The grainy little alien on the picture that’s pinned to my wall starts proper school next week.

I wish I hadn’t acted grumpy and selfish on 5th September 2005, I wish I had realised it was an important day and I was actually really lucky.

 

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Ryan

We’ve been slinking down the back alleys of all the empty houses on the block. It’s quite good, counting how far along the terrace the house with the ‘To Let’ sign is, then going round the back and figuring out which is its gate. There was one with a load of mouldy furniture piled like Jenga beneath the kitchen window, one with a ferocious dog and one with a gate that swung open so that Tom fell into the yard when he tried to peer through it.

“I think we should stop this now Mum,” he said, standing up and brushing himself down, “people might fink we’re burgallohs.”

He was right. And none of them had yards much bigger than ours anyway. So, I went back to thinking we should stay put and pay off some debt.

Then, last night, when I collected Tom from his holiday club, we walked down our alley and someone had tried to blow up a wheelchair outside our back gate.

“What is it Mum?”

There was the wheelchair, with a big hole in the seat, lots of white ash flakes and some cans of Lynx.

“Someone has tried to set fire to a wheelchair.”

“Why did somebody try to set fire to a wheelchair?”

“I don’t know.”

We went to the supermarket and tried to buy light bulbs. That’s the other thing about our house. It has those fancy halogen spotlights which are impossible to replace, unless you’re ten feet tall and patient. And every time one blows, the power to the entire upstairs / downstairs goes. Invariably it happens when I come in from a night out. I have to feel around in the dark electrics box with its spindly spiders and slug trails. I feel like I am stuck in a never-ending cycle of forking out for expensive light bulbs and sitting in the dark, psyching myself up to shove my hand in the cupboard of horrors or climb up the wobbly step ladders. (I have three main fears: the dark, spiders and heights.)

The supermarket didn’t have the right light bulbs and it was dusk by the time we got home again. Children were pushing each other fast along the cobbles in the burnt-out wheelchair. Last weekend, we stayed in a beautiful Somerset Farmhouse (a prize I won) and I’d watched Tom running round the garden with the little boy who lives there. He got really excited when he found a legless cricket and some blackberries and I got the countryside guilt again.

The dark nights are coming on quick and I realised it was bin night too late. I promised to read Tom a story right after I’d put the rubbish out. I opened the back gate and the wheelchair had gone. It was black and scary and I saw something moving and jumped. It was a hedgehog. Some teenage girls were passing and I pointed it out to them and they screamed, said it might bite them and ran away. When I was a child, we were always seeing hedgehogs in our garden. I ran back inside and told Tom to grab his torch and my camera and come with me. He thought it was magic and so did I. I picked it up and put it in the bushes so it didn’t get kicked or run over by the burnt-out wheelchair. Tom called it Ryan. After I washed my hands, I could still feel the prickles on my palms. I put Tom to bed and he did dot-to-dot on the tiny red dints in my skin.

“Fanks for showing me Ryan. You’re the best Mum I’ve ever had.”

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