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.”


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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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Best feeling in the world

Frances writes:

college is actually abit of a let down i am trying to get on with it tho all the girls in my class are new school leavers and act so imature i actually cant get on with them at all they do my head in with there childish behaviour i hope i wasnt like when i was 16 im only 17 now but there seem like there really younger. also i wont to be a beauty therapist not a hairdresser and this course is classed as hair dressing i need to be doing beauty i hope they put me on the next level beuty at the other campus in a couple of weeks. mias birthday planing is going ok everything is done expt buying food but i will do that tomorrow. the problem at the moment is that there is to many people invited and the venue only holds 25-30 people so me and melissa are trying not to go grey and hopefully find a bigger venue in such short notice if not the birthday party might have to be at mine then i can bring as many people as i wont and i can have it for as long as i want its been really busy this week with college and going to the reclaim office to sort out the last bit that we need to do for the party. not long before my baby girl is 1 her first year has gone so fast and mia has grown so much i always look at the picturs of her as a baby and compare them to now its such a difference she has got loads of personality and becoming a big girl. she is such a pricess and even tho she wont have a clue what the party is for she deserves to be treated like a real princess i love her loads being a parent is the most biggest thing a person can do and no one will understand untill there are parents its life changing but brilliant its gave me expirences and feelings i never new id have it the best feeling in the world

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Like a diamond in the sky


As if the mention of her name has woken her up, Mia starts crying from her cot.

“Hello princess,” sings Frances. “Hello princess.” I follow her into the bedroom.

“Let me put the light on,” I say, unable to take pictures in the dark room.

“It’s broken. The bulb doesn’t work.” I open one of the curtains instead.

“You have grown big, haven’t you?” Mia looks bleary-eyed at me. “You still tired?”

“Talk,” orders Frances. Mia immediately responds by making a sound. We both laugh. “I love it when I tell her to dance and then she’ll start dancing. Even if there’s no music on, she’ll start dancing.”

The insurance man has now left and the three of them start to get ready to go out. I am taking Frances and Mia into the Reclaim offices in town so she can design an invitation for the party. We’re dropping Hassan off at the job centre on the way.

“What’s happening about the housing?” I ask as she gets bottles ready. Frances is registered on a website where she ‘bids’ for social housing. There’s no money involved, the bid just tells the housing association of her interest.

“I’ve not told you yet, have I? My support worker told me that Mosscare [the housing association in Moss Side where she wants a house] have a policy of not offering anybody a house until they are 18. And I am in band five.”

“What’s band five?”

“It’s the most rubbish. Well, band six is the most rubbish. And if you’re in band one then you’ll get moved immediately. But as soon as I am 18 I’ll be put into band three and have a better chance of being moved.”

“So, you’ve been bidding all this time for no reason? And no one told you?” Frances doesn’t seem bothered. She’s more excited that she might make progress after her birthday in December.

The bath water is ready. “Mia, Mia… do you want to do splashing?”

Despite the odd jugful of water over her head Mia still manages to sing her version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star while in the bath. “Are you singing to Mummy? Are you? Where’s the quack-quack duck?” After a verse or two Hassan comes in to take over so Frances can get herself ready. These two work well as a team.

It’s not too much longer before we are all traipsing down the white clinical corridor, Mia enjoying the expanse to show just how far she can walk.

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My comfort zone

We talk quietly in the kitchenette because today I’m not the only visitor. There is some insurance assessor here, sat on one of the sofas with a large laptop on his knee. He is taking statements about a car accident in which they both were slightly injured. Seems they were travelling back from his brother’s wedding ‘do’ and were hit by another car, which sped off.

It’s been over a month since I’ve seen Frances. I’m looking forward to catching up on her news and seeing how much Mia has grown these last few weeks.

“And can you describe the car that hit you?” the assessor says to Hassan as I ask Frances about her grandma who was critically ill.

“We all rushed to the hospital when they said she only had 12 hours but she pulled through. She’s still in, but she’s much better.”

“Is that your mum’s mum?”

“Yeah. And my mum has been out of hospital for a while now. She’s been doing okay.”

“Has she had her prosthetic leg fitted?”

“Not yet. I haven’t seen her for a week or so, I’m going over later.”

For weeks Frances has been planning Mia’s first birthday party. It’s now less than a month away and I assume preparations are well advanced.

“What are you going to get her for her birthday?”

“I’ve already bought her loads of things,” says Frances excitedly. “I’ve bought her a wicked little pair of trainers called Toms. They’re like pumps but they’re hard at the bottom – like proper shoes – so they’ll be good for walking. I was buzzing when I bought them. I never had anything like that. I had Reebok Classics from the charity shop.

“And I’ve bought her one of those plastic things with the different colours that you bang with a hammer. I’ve got her a blow-up Mini Mouse chair and a big keyboard thing, and what else?”

I follow Frances into their bedroom where she shows me the presents, all wrapped up in pink paper. She tips out plastic bags full of party poppers, decorations, prizes for games.

“I need to get a piñata,” she says. “They’re £5 at Asda.”

The assessor is still questioning Hassan – “And what is the name of your GP?” – and so we continue our catch-up in the kitchenette where Frances describes how she has transferred to a closer campus of the same college, to continue her course.

“I’ve opened up my comfort zone, stepped out and now I’ve made it bigger.”

I must have pulled a puzzled face.

“I just walked in on my own and said I’d come to enroll. I was chatting to everyone. I wasn’t even bothered. I was like, ‘You don’t know me. So how can you judge me if you don’t know me?’”

“Why do you think they would judge you?”

“Because that’s what I always think when I go into somewhere new. I think they are staring at me and thinking I’m a bad person. But this time I wasn’t even bothered. And I even walked it back. I was feeling well confident.”

The Wythenshawe campus is just up the road from Dunbar Street. It’s only been opened a couple of years but I can’t understand why she was not referred there when she enrolled last year at the campus across town. Maybe at that time they didn’t offer the course.

She’ll do six weeks here and then, if she progresses well, she’ll start Level 2 at the Northenden which is a little further away but still on this side of town.

“But you passed Level 1, didn’t you? Why can’t you go straight to Level 2?”

“One of my tutors marked me down on her reference because of poor punctuality.”

“Did she not realise you have a baby, had to get up at six and had a series of bus journeys that took nearly two hours!”

“And what about Mia?”

“She’s going to nursery!” Frances exclaims, clapping her hands together. “I’m going to send her to the Forum Nursery. But I need to get the forms first so she can get funding. She can be there from 8 o’clock in the morning all the way until 6 o’clock in the evening while I’m at college.

“It’ll be good because she’ll be playing with other kids and she’ll start making me pictures. I can’t wait! I’ll just put them all over the walls. Everywhere.”

Continued in ‘Like a diamond in the sky’…

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Not up to much

Frances writes:

not relly been up to much since the last post mia is good she has 4 teeth now she is such a big girl she is always out playing with her friends. Its her 1st birthday in less then a monthcant wait not really had much contact with mellisa [from Reclaim] but im, going to get in contact with her im hopeing we can find a place to hire for it if not it will be in the big communal area at mine. Ive been buying bits and bobs and a few presents. ive been got to had some good days and bad days i have to go and enrol at college again this week but i want to transfer campuses to the 1 near me so its easier and i wont have to wake up so early and will get home in less then half an hour instead of an hour and a half. Ive benn to see my mum quiet a bit to help her out and taking her to appointments she is doing very well, unfortunatly my nana has been in hospital seriously ill i had a phone call a couple of weeks ago to go to the hospital because she didnt have much time left. the drs give her 12 hours that day but since then she has managed to get better and she is recovering but she is still in hospital. me and hassan have been spending lots of time together at home he is good nothing has really changed in his situation. had some bad things happen like no change in my housing im still bidding i found a 2 bedroom house on the next street to my mums i bid for it and i wanted to send a letter but everytime i asked the staff to help me they were toobusy and tell me to come back and that would take to long they should have helped me thats what they are here for so they are starting to dissapoint there. But i ended up sending an email to homefinder to try to get a better chanceof getting it but i havent heard anything back. i have also sent an email of complaint to the head office telling them that i am very angry that they havent changed my carpet and i have had enough with it and if they dont i will be forced to go to a solicitor. do you think thats a bit harsh? i dont the carpets are discracefull also said how much they have let me down helping me recover mia ‘s stolen birthday money the police have denyed me chance to find out who took it to they have told me that they are to busy to look at the camera now so thay are closing the case there just as bad they are suposed to be FIGHTING CRIME, PROTECTING PEOPLE. but there not no wonder y people take the law in to there own hands bloody ridiculous it unsecure here and they dont actually help u since i have lived her my mental helf has gotten worse but im staying stonge and waiting for my time im just trying to do everything that needs doing in order to get me moved on pritty hard with no help but im getting there

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