Three months on

It’s a coincidence I’ve called round this evening. I’ve been taking photographs at the hospital nearby and thought I’d pop in. Mia’s first birthday was exactly three months ago.

Hassan is out and Mia is in bed, Frances tells me as we walk up to her flat. “I was just making myself something to eat,” she says. I can see chips through the oven door and mixed veg on the cooker. There are a couple of eggs on the counter, waiting to be fried.

Over the last few weeks, we have kept in touch and for Frances’ 18th birthday a week or so ago, Ruth (from Reclaim) and I took mum, dad and Mia out for a celebratory curry. It had been a roller-coaster week: on Tuesday she buried her mother and on Saturday she supposedly ‘came of age’.

As Frances checks on her chips I pop my head round Mia’s door. Big mistake. She’s sitting up in bed and starts to cry as soon as she sees the door has opened. “Don’t worry about it,” says Frances coming to collect her, “she often doesn’t sleep until later.

“Look who’s here,” she says with Mia on her hip. “It’s Grandad, isn’t it?”

“What date did your mum die?” I ask once the tape recorder is on.

“The 10th of November.”

“That wasn’t expected I know but, at the same time, it wasn’t unexpected was it?”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. We knew she was ill but she hadn’t been really ill for a while. It was in her sleep.”

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There had been a postmortem and apparently there’ll be an inquest. “So how did you feel about your mum’s death?”

“I don’t know. It hit me pretty bad when it happened and for the days after and then I was all right. Now I have my ups and downs and there are some days when I get really low. I think about it every night before I go to sleep and sometimes I just start crying randomly. I was speaking to Hassan about it the other day, because when his dad died it hit him hard too.”

“They do say that you’ll never get over it but you will get used to it. And people deal with grief in different ways.”

Mia is playing with a plastic Winnie the Pooh toy that makes appropriate noises when buttons are pressed. “Where’s that buzzy bee coming from?” I ask her.

“Tell me what the funeral was like,” I ask Frances who is now frying the eggs.

“It was good. Lots of flowers and everyone was there, about 100 people. I met two of my uncles who I’d never met before. After we all went to my nana’s place. It was the first time all the family had been together in one family home. We all felt safe and happy and just wanted to give everyone love. We want to do it again, but not under the same circumstances.”

“So it brought everyone together?”

“Yeah, it was good.”

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“And how has Mia been?”

“She’s started nursery and loves it. And I’ve been keeping all the little papers they give you.” The nursery staff provide each parent with a one-page daily progress report. Great idea.

“Let’s have a look,” I say, taking one of the sheets. “Is this is what you’ve been doing today Mia? Have you been eating sandwiches and fruit? And have you been doing Dig, Dig, Dig?” Mia gives a big smile as she recalls the activity. “And have you been doing At the bottom of the sea?”

“Yesterday she had pasta bake, yoghurt, cheese and onion pasty and beans, and cornflake cake,” reads Frances from another sheet.

“She gets better fed there than she does here!” I say.

“She does… that’s why I send her! No, she really likes it and gets to play with the other kids.”

Since her birthday Frances has moved up two bands on the housing waiting list which means she is a little more likely to be successful in her bidding.

“Oh, and tell me about your new job,” I ask. The organisation that manages her accommodation has offered Frances a job where she visits other accommodation and acts as the tenants’ representative. She’ll get some vouchers as payment. “What’s the job title?”

“I’m going to be a lay assessor,” she says.

“And how did you get that?”

“It’s because I know how to be bossy. I do a lot of complaining!” Frances (and this blog) is also featured in the organisation’s newsletter and she has a certificate declaring she is  ‘tenant of the month’.

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Mia is put in the high chair, cackling to herself. She’s getting a ‘midnight feast’ of beans, egg and veg. So not too disappointed at being woken up by ‘Grandad’.

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“And the winner is…”

“Hi. How are you?”

“I’m okay, how are you?” Frances replies.

“I’m a little tired today. I didn’t really sleep very well. I woke up early still buzzing after last night. Re-living it. You got back all right?”

“Yeah. When we got home Mia was khackered so we put her straight to bed. We stayed up pretty late though…”.

“Have you seen the blog? I’ve put up the thing that says, ‘Blog North Winner’.”

“Wicked!”

“There’ve been lots of congratulations and people have been tweeting really nice things. I’m compiling them all for you… I’ll print them out so you can keep it for Mia.”

“Wicked!”

I can hear Mia in the background. Actually, not in the background, she’s quite close to the phone.

“I’ve just put the bath on for her.”

“Arhhh,” says Mia.

“She was the star, everyone thought she was wonderful!”

“I know. She wants to speak to you. One minute.”

I hear Mia noises down the phone and try to respond appropriately.

“Hiya Mia, how are you doing? Are you going to have a splashy bath? Are you?”

“Do you want to push buttons,” Frances says to Mia. “Do you want to take the phone? Are you speaking to Grandad?”

“Hey, less of the Grandad!! Anyway, well done and everything. Next time I come round I won’t have to bring my camera. I can just come and have a cup of tea.”

“I know,” says Frances. “That’s going to be weird.”

Her First Year won Best Personal Blog in the Blog North Awards 2012!

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“No one round here sells it”

We’re not even through the front door and Ruth has thrust a copy into Frances’ hands. “Page 48, page 48!” she says as the inserts start to slip out of the magazine.

Ruth is the director of mentoring charity, Reclaim, and has known Frances since she was 12. She’s practically a surrogate parent and, as such, is possibly more excited this morning than either Frances or me.

After Frances has leafed through the article, and exclaimed ‘Wicked!’ more times than there are pages, we are eventually allowed in.

“I’ve already been out to try and get one,” says Frances, “but no one round here sells it. They said, ‘Why, do you read the Guardian?’ And I’m like, no, I’m in the Guardian!”

Hassan is dressing Mia on their bed. She smiles a broad smile and seems genuinely happy to see us. “Good morning Hassan,” says Ruth, “Good morning baby Mia.”

“There’s a picture of you half naked,” Frances says to Hassan as she sits next to him to show him the piece. “Look Mia, there’s you.”


They are in a rush this morning. Ruth is doing a zip wire challenge for Reclaim and she has managed to get Frances a place too.

“Have we got time for a brew?” asks Frances.

“A quick one,” replies Ruth.

“837,” I say, checking the WordPress app on my phone. “837 views on the blog so far today, from all around the world.”

“837!” exclaims Frances. “You’ll be checking that all day now.”

“I know. Sad, isn’t it?”

There are new pictures on the wall: some of the photos I gave to Frances on my last visit; a group one of Hassan’s family and a couple that Frances has had since childhood.

“That’s the one I robbed from school, and that one with the writing on was when I was about seven.”

I’ve brought Frances five copies of the paper, so she can give them to her family and friends. “I’ve been to four different newsagents this morning and bought five copies from each,” I admit. “I didn’t want to clear out a single newsagent in case someone I knew came in to buy the paper!”

“The back seat of his car is just full of Guardians,” laughs Ruth. She’s right. It is.

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Such a good girl

Frances writes:

I’ve not been upto much just college, I’m not alloud to change my course because of my attendance + a waiting list so I have to stay on this one but I will be guarenteed a place on the beauty course next year. I’ve not been to see my mum since she has come out of hospital because I’ve not been feeling to go out I reli I no she is ok tho. Still not heard anything about moving and my mum keeps avoiding the subject when I talk to her about moving in with me she does that avoids talking about things it does my head in. O I applied for a budgiting loan so I can buy some new things but the job center haven’t received my acceptance letter twice and I can only send it by post but now because of that there saying I can get it faxed to me sign it then fax it back I’m not alloud to just hand it in face to face they won’t accept it for some reason. Mia is good she is getting bigger and cleaver everyday she’s such a good girl. I have to apply for my mums birth certificate she has one but her mum won’t let her have it. I need it to get my passport my birth certificate isn’t good enough apparently it doesn’t prove I’m a british citizen even tho it says on it that I was born in old trafford witch blattently means I’m britsh there bloody ridiculous…

… Forgot to mension I went out for a bit today I took mia and hassan swimming it was top mia loved it

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Changing course

“You been getting wet on the way to college this week?” I ask on the phone. Really I’m trying to work out whether she’s been going, without actually asking outright. There’s a short silence.

“Well,” Frances says, slowly. “I’ve not really been going. It’s rubbish. I don’t like the others on the course. I’d rather be back at Openshaw. But there I was just too tired… it was too far.”

This term Frances has transferred from the college across town to a new one in Wythenshawe, down the road. It’s not exactly the course she wants to do, but she has to show her commitment to this one and then she’ll get moved to the Northenden campus which should be perfect: right course on the right side of town.

“But if you don’t go to this one, you won’t get transferred to Northenden. You’ll have nothing.” It’s interesting. The longer we do this blog the more I move from objective observer to mentor.

“I know, I know. I need to get down there and ask to move.”

“I was planning to come over this afternoon and drop off the photos from the party. Shall I take you round to the college as well? I could take some pictures.”

Within the hour Frances is leading me down the corridor to her flat. “It’s warm here,” I say, feeling one of the radiators.

“Yeah, it’s good isn’t it? If I leave my door open I get some of the heat in the flat… and it costs me nothing.”

The flat is empty. “So, where are Hassan and Mia?”

“He took her for injections this morning, but hasn’t come back yet. He’s probably gone to Moss Side with her. I’ve no credit and the office won’t let me use their phone, it’s against the rules.”

“Would you like to use mine?”

After she has phoned Hassan – yes, he’s fine and Mia survived her jabs – she sits and looks through the photos I’ve had printed.

“Ahh, look at little Mia… Ahh, that’s a wicked picture… Look at me, proper smiling… Ahh, I love that one where it’s just us three… Ha! Look, it looks like we’re happy but we’re actually arguing… I know for a fact that picture’s going to go on Hassan’s mum’s fridge.”

When the photos are back in the cellophane: “Come on, get your shoes on. I need to get back for five.”

The college is a three-minute drive away but we get caught up in a temporary one-way system set up to install the Metrolink tram lines. “So what is it exactly you don’t like about this course?”

“I don’t know, they’re just not my kind of people. And I’m not a people-person.”

“I think you are a people-person.”

“Do you think?”

“Yes, I think very much you are, and I don’t know why you think you’re not.”

Clare and Amanda, the friends from the party, are outside the college when we get there.

“How’s it going?” I ask.

“Everything is fine,” replies Clare, still in her decorating overalls. “I’m just full of paint at the moment.”

“So why are you down here?” she asks Frances.

“I’ve come to see about changing courses to Northenden.”

“Changing to another course? What don’t you like about this place?”

“It’s just full of chavs.”

“Yeah,” Clare agrees. “Spotty chavs.”

We all head for reception. It’s the end of the afternoon, the college is quiet. We don’t have to wait long before someone is brought out to speak to Frances. This woman surprises me. She is positive and supportive, takes Frances’ details and says she’ll speak to the Northenden campus in the morning. “If I haven’t got back to you by four o’clock tomorrow, don’t worry, it just means I haven’t been able to get hold of them. I will phone you back.”

We all walk back to my car. “She’s good,” I say.

“Yes, she is dead nice but I bet she’s got a bad side to her as well.”

“You’re always thinking negatively about people, Frances,” I say, in mentor mode. “You need to turn this round and think positively about people…”.

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“Wicked.”

I’ve been trying to get hold of Frances since yesterday to tell her the news. She eventually picks up.

“Are you at home?”

“No, I’m at the doctor’s.” I can hear Mia shrieking in the background.

“Is everyone okay?”

“I’ve just got an appointment with my mental health worker.”

“Now then, I’ve got some good news for you.”

“Oo, Go on.”

“We’ve been shortlisted for the Blog North Awards in both the the best personal blog and best writing categories.”

“Ah, wicked.” It sounds as if Mia is whooping too.

“So we’ll have to go to the award ceremony… I’ve already bought the tickets.”

“Ah, brilliant. When is it?” I tell her the date.

“There’s also a public vote, so you’ll have to get everyone you know to vote for it.”

“Yeah, okay! I’m going to have to go because my appointment is now… I need to go in. Ring me back later.”

“Okay. bye.”

“Bye.”

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Back to normal

Frances writes:

thanks for coming yesterday u was a big help not having much of a good day today though i just got 2 rooms recarpeted today but they didnt even change the underlay it looked horrible then i went down stairs to see if i had any post, and the staff started threaterning me about how i always letting hassan walk round on his own and do the washing and all the other tenants are really uncomfortable so they are passing it on to the housing and it could go against my chances of being re housed and that they will have to inform the benefits people. then when i went up stairs i opened my letter to find the housing are reducing my housing benefits by 14% which would mean me paying £23.71 out of my own money towards the rent because they are saying i have an extra room which is rubish because i only have to rooms which is what im intitled to 1 for me and 1 for mia if i had 3 rooms i could understand but it would only be an extra £12 on top of my rent but i am only entitled to a 2 bed room house even if i have another child if its another girl they would have to shar a room untill they are 16 but if it was a boy i think it 12 then they would have to have there own rooms. so i am not happy at all i have sent a complaint letter to head office of dunbar street and jane [the Family Nurse Partnership nurse] is helping me with the housing letter i got this morning.

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The second party

Mia’s first birthday party, final post…

By the time Hassan’s family convoy arrives at 7.20 some of the other guests have already left and one or two of the resident mums have returned to their flats to put their children to bed.

Plastic bags full of ingredients, saucepans and a deep fat fryer are unloaded from the back of the Zade. Two sisters and a cousin head up to the flat to prepare food while Hassan nips to the shop to buy cooking oil which has been overlooked. When he finally makes it into the communal lounge – where the party has been swelled with aunties, cousins, uncles and nephews – he is berated by Frances and her sisters. “Yes, there might be African time but everyone on British time has already been here since four and are ready to go home!”

Hassan takes it in good humour and, to her credit, Frances moves on. At this point in a stressful evening other couples might have gone off on one but Frances holds it together and the two of them are soon laughing and joking about who’s going to open the birthday card with an anticipated money gift.

But even now the cake-cutting – and more importantly, the cake-eating – is delayed until the extra food is ready. In the meantime Frances introduces me to Hassan’s mother, the matriarch around which this close Somalian family clearly revolves. “He’s the man who takes all those pictures,” explains Frances.

Eventually the moment has arrived and Hassan and I carefully drag the wobbly cake table into the middle of the room. Mia is brought forward and I get the photograph which marks the end of her first year. Their daughter is one year old and from where I’m standing I see a toddler flanked by a devoted mum and dad, surrounded by a loving extended family, and poised to enjoy a childhood in complete contrast to her mother’s.

Jacky is tired now and getting restless. She wants to go home. After a few pictures of Hassan’s family, I pack my things. With Jacky installed with her oxygen in the front, Frances’s sister and her kids in the back and the wheelchair folded in the boot, we set off back to Moss Side leaving the second party to get into full swing.

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African time

Mia’s first birthday party, part 2…

It seems a bit weird whisking Frances off in the middle of the party.

“It doesn’t feel like her birthday,” she says as we join Princess Parkway. “It was months away and now it’s here.”

“A year ago you were in that hospital bed.”

“And look at her now. She’s one, and,” she says slowly as if it’s just sinking in, “I’m her mum.”

“You’re doing a good job.”

“I hope so. I can only do the best I can.”

As we drive we talk about the blog, this online story that has drawn us together over the last twelve months. Her First Year technically ends today.

“People have been asking recently when it will finish. Right here?”

“No, next one.” she says, pointing up the road.

“It would be hard to end it now, abruptly.” We’ve talked before about what might happen but never come to any conclusion. “We should keep it going at least for a few more months, to see what happens,” I suggest. “And then you can continue it yourself if you wanted to. People think your bits are the best anyway.”

“Yeah, I could.”

At her childhood home Frances goes in to help her mum get ready. After a few minutes she comes out with an oxygen tank and puts it in the front of the car. “I won’t be long.” she says.

Next she wheels her mum down the path and helps her into the passenger seat. I’ve found out her name is Jacky, same as my mum.

As we set off to Frances’s sister to pick up some more family, Jacky tells me how she finds it difficult to cope in that house in a wheelchair. “I can’t get upstairs,” she says. “They’ve offered me a one-bedroom flat, but I refused. What if I wanted someone to stay?”

It’s rush hour now and it’s 5.15 before we are back at the party. I get my camera out again but Frances diplomatically suggests her mother might not want to be photographed. “You don’t take a good picture, do you?” Her mum nods.

The cling film is off now and everyone tucks into the egg mayonnaise sandwiches and sausage rolls to the sound of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.

“I’m stressing,” I overhear Frances say to Melissa.

“Why? It’s all going well: the cake’s here, your family’s here, the food’s going down well.”

“I need a smoke,” she says as she retreats to the laundry room next door.

“It’s turning into a bit of a disaster,” she says after she’s lit her cigarette. “Hassan’s family isn’t here and already most of the food is gone. We don’t mind, we know what an English children’s party is like. They don’t. They’ll expected it to look like a wedding. But if he says anything, there’ll be trouble.”

“Just imagine it’s like having two parties,” I suggest. “One party now and another when Hassan’s family arrives.”

Minutes later Igglepiggle bursts through the double doors. Clearly one of the Reclaim team has drawn the short straw. Mia’s eyes widen, transfixed. One of the older boys accuses Igglepiggle of being his uncle.

The mobile phones come out and nearly every toddler gets their picture taken with ‘Iggle’, current superhero to the under-5s. For others it’s too much.

“You like ‘Iggle’ on TV,” says one mum to her screaming daughter.

“Where’s Upsy Daisy I wonder?” asks another.

After equal amounts of delight, incredulity and hysteria, Igglepiggle leaves and I notice Frances taking a call on her mobile.

“What’s the latest?” I ask.

“He says his family are going to make all the food they need and then come. They’re on African time!”

The party continues. In between pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey, Ruth gives a little speech. “… Frances came on a project called Reclaim… and we’ve known her ever since… and we absolutely love her and Mia… it’s dead nice to meet everyone… and we’ve got a couple of gifts… the first one is for Frances because you’re amazing and beautiful!”

After mother and daughter unwrap their presents, Frances is handed a large canvas.

“And this is from Ebony,” says Ruth and, by way of explanation to everyone watching, “she was one of the girls on the project with Frances…”

“Oh, it’s gorgeous,” says Frances, clearly touched. “It’s really good. I love it.”

Continued…

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Happy Birthday to you!

Mia’s first birthday party, part 1…

I’m expecting mayhem but when I arrive it’s all relatively calm. Frances, still in her pyjamas, is pulling mini sausage rolls out of the oven while her older sister Joanne is blowing up balloons.  Zane, Joanne’s youngest, is playing with a pink radio-controlled car, one of Mia’s birthday presents.

“Where’s Hassan and Mia?” I ask.

“I’ve told him to take her for a walk… get out of the way for a while.”

Today’s the day. Mia’s first birthday party. It seems Frances has been working up to this ever since I photographed them all in the hospital ward twelve months ago. It means a lot to her.

It’s 1.30 and I’ve come early to help out. I’ve offered to drive Frances to Moss Side so we can collect her mum. Hassan arrives back with Mia and starts to prepare a bottle. “She needs a sleep before the party,” he says, to no one in particular. Frances gives him a big hug in the kitchenette. She’s happy today.

“We’re just nipping to the Forum Centre,” she says, “I need to get some shoes.” Hassan has hired a car for all the running around, collecting relatives… and last-minute shoe shopping. “It’s a Nissan Juke,” Frances explains, “our dream family car.”

While they are out I try to read Mia and Zade a storybook but the attraction of a room full of balloons and new toys defeats me. Joanne steadily continues the preparations: deep pan pizzas are now in the oven; eggs boiling on the hob and popcorn in the microwave. She puts a plate of tuna sandwiches on the floor and Zane helps himself.

By the time Frances and Hassan return, a couple of her old school friends have arrived and help by taking balloons, party bags and silver foil trays of food downstairs to the communal lounge.

Originally the party was planned for a community centre in Moss Side, close to friends and family. But the room’s capacity was limited and so, only last weekend, Frances decided to change the venue to Dunbar Street where she could accommodate more people.

It’s 3.30, the advertised start time of the party, and Frances is now changed into her party dress and sitting on her bedroom floor as her friend Clare does her hair. “Can you give Mia a bath?” Frances shouts to her sister.

“Are you studying hair and beauty as well?” I ask Clare.

“No, painting and decorating.”

“Try and keep my fringe out of my face,” Frances says. “She’s been doing my hair and make-up for years.”

“So where did you get your dress from?” I ask.

“From Kelly,” says Frances, although I’m not sure whether Kelly is a shop or a friend. “And the shoes are from Asda.

“This is like from Daybreak,” she laughs, and then, as if she were a  TV announcer: “Shoes: Asda. Dress: borrowed.”

“Day: priceless,” chips in Clare.

With the make-up session coming to an end Mia toddles into her mum’s bedroom after Auntie Joanne has struggled her into a new dress. There’s an intake of breath. “She looks gorgeous,” says Clare. Mia immediately heads for the make-up bag and helps herself.

“What time is it now?” Frances asks Joanne.

“Quarter to four.”

We all go downstairs where Frances’ neighbours and their children are waiting. There are gasps as Mia makes her entrance. “She’s beautiful,” someone says. “Gorgeous.”

Ruth and some of her team from Reclaim arrive. “You look amazing,” Ruth says as she greets Frances. As director of the youth-mentoring programme that Frances attended more than five years ago, today is another milestone on a long journey for them both.

Party-organiser Melissa is carrying one of three cake boxes. “I had to have this on my lap in the car,” she says.

“I bet you were well scared,” says Frances. The two of them tentatively assemble the three tiered birthday cake on what turns out to be a wobbly table.

“That’s the bummest cake ever,” exclaims Frances.

It’s now 4.15 and Hassan left some time ago to collect more guests. “Come on, we better go and get my mum.”

To be continued…

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