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.”


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