A change for the better

Frances instructs me to park on some loading bay while she rushes off to the cash machine. Then it’s back to the row of shops next to Dunbar Street where she messes about for the camera before going into the newsagents.

“Ten pounds, please,” says Frances as she hands over her plastic key. The woman behind the counter isn’t in the least bit curious about why one of her regular customers is accompanied today by some bloke talking pictures of this mundane process. I’m just glad I don’t have to justify myself.

In the entrance lobby of Frances’ block three or four of her neighbours – other mums with babies or small children – are debating what to do about the benefit payment debacle. At least one has also run out of electricity in her flat.

“What will they do?” I ask Frances as we return to her flat. “Can’t the staff help out?” There’s a small office next to the front door where there always seem to be at least three support staff.

“They’re not allowed to loan us anything,” explains Frances, “not even allowed to loan us a ciggy. That blond girl, the one with no electricity, she can use the communal kitchen downstairs at least, so she can get by.”

And then tonight I wonder? Has she got candles for when it gets dark? At least it’s the longest day. And for that young mum, it will be, because of some administrative error in the banks.

Frances puts the plastic key in the meter outside her flat door and when we walk in the place has lit up. “We have power!” she declares triumphantly.

Joanne is blowing bubbles towards Mia who is sitting, delighted, on the carpet. I see a photo opportunity. “I could do loads before,” says Joanne, trying her best to create a cloud of bubbles around her niece. “Look, she’s trying to eat them.”

While we’ve been out the post has arrived and Frances is now tearing open a couple of envelopes while she waits for the kettle to boil. One, ironically, is from an electricity supplier. “Do you want a change for the better,” says Frances, reading the headline out. “Hah!”

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The lecky’s off

Wythenshawe is in two minds today. Bedraggled Union Jack bunting is still slung across some house fronts whereas others have moved on to the George Cross, nervously optimistic after our win against the Swedes.

“I haven’t been paid today,” says Frances as she leads me upstairs to her flat. “There’s some problem with the banks and the tax credits haven’t gone through.”

Joanne, one of her sisters, is here today with her two youngest children. Two playmates for Mia.

It’s grey outside and the flat is dark. There are no lights on. “We’ve run out of credit. The electricity is off,” says Frances. “I can’t even boil the kettle to make her bottle.”

There’s a small freezer – new since my last visit – sitting in the living room, just outside the kitchenette. “What about that?” I say, “That’ll all defrost.” Frances shrugs.

“I can loan you a tenner,” I suggest, switching to dad mode, happy not to have it back.

“No thanks,” replies Frances. “I’ll just wait till my money comes through.”

I lift the lid off the freezer. “But that’ll all be ruined by then.”

Frances refuses to take my money. Before I arrived they were thinking of walking to the Civic Centre so Joanne could get £10 from the machine to give to her younger sister. It would be just over a mile there and back; in the rain, with a baby, a toddler and a four-year-old. The local shop has a cash machine but that charges £1.50 for each withdrawal.

While I gently try to persuade Frances to take some money, I take lots of pictures of Mia and her cousins playing, trying to capture her new ear studs in the light. It seems daft to me that Frances won’t let me help out.

“Come on Frances. This is crazy. Let me take you to get £10 on your electric thing.” I’m not familiar with her prepaid key operation. They both find that amusing.

“Are you on a contract for your electricity?” Joanne asks.

“Yes. Direct debit.”

She explains she used to pay quarterly but found it too expensive, all in one go, and has gone back to the pay-as-you-go system. She knows exactly how much she pays each week, each month. I hope she doesn’t ask to compare payments, I wouldn’t have a clue.

“Frances this is hard work! Let’s go!” Still she is resistant. “Okay, what if I take you up to the Civic Centre to get money out of Joanne’s account?”

This seems to be an acceptable solution and soon Frances and I are taking the short trip up the road. I bring my tape recorder, hoping I will be able to hear Frances’ voice over my screeching wipers.

“So tell me, why are you reluctant to take a loan from me?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “If I was at my mum’s house I wouldn’t even take money off her but back in the day, when I was living there, I’d happily snatch it off her whenever I could.”

“Is it because you feel you want to be more independent do you think?”

“I try and make myself get through until the next pay day because if I don’t I’ll just have less the next time and I might have to borrow again. I don’t want to get into that cycle.”

“What if it’s an emergency?”

“Then I’ll ask Joanne. She’s the only person I’d get it off.”

“Why her?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always had money off her. She looks after me. She used to babysit me the whole time when I was younger. If we went to town, she’d end up buying me something.”

“How old is she?”

“28.”

“So it’s a bit like having another mum for you, isn’t it?

“Yeah.”
To be continued…

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Her first tooth

Frances writes:

this week was ok apart from i didnt go out much. i had a doctors appoiontment for a hpv jab (civical cancer) but when i went to pick the jab up from the pharmasist they didnt have it so i had to re book my apiontment. mia has been screaming all week and finally yesterday she got her first tooth i was buzzing i told everyone on the bus when i went out. i went to see my mum yesterday not seen her in a week she is doing better again tho. i dont no when sheis getting her leg yet but she has just had an intercom fitted so she can let people in with a botton insted or rolling there. bit down this week for money dont no how but i really dont get as much as a need but i just have to do with it. hassan is ok he is just looking for more jobs and playing the lottery hoping he is going to be a big winner 1 day but we’re not getting anywhere.i love this lap top its wicked i take it everywhere i can do everything it’s helping me plan mia’s birthday 2 so convienient, i can just go on it when ever i have an idea.

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Moving up in the world

Frances writes:

cant really remember what i have done this week my head is blank lol. i pierced mias ears today my sister brought her ear piercing kit down and done it, she is qualified to do it and i done mine again. going to see my mum tomorrow because i havent seen her since wednesday. not really got many plans for the week just going to stay in i think and relax yaay (lol). cant wait soon im going to be on level 2im moving up in the world.

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Parallel lives

We’re in my car on the way to Hassan’s mum’s house when I ask Frances if she is doing anything for the Jubilee. Without looking I can tell she is pulling a face. “Who cares that she’s been our Queen for 60 years?”

I ask her about the Olympics, this year’s other big event that we’re all supposed to get behind. Last night on the local TV news there was yet another report on the Olympic Torch being carried from one place to the next with thousands of enthusiastic onlookers waving and cheering. Apparently the torch tour makes the rest of the country feel part of the London-centric Games.

“I’d rather go and watch a carnival,” says Frances.

Ironically it is Frances and millions of others on low incomes who buy the Lottery tickets that support the Games that they cannot afford to enjoy. The poor are paying for the entertainment of the more affluent. There’s a dissertation in there somewhere.

“How’s your mum?” I ask as we cross the A6 through Longsight.

“She’s back home now,” she says. “She had had a small heart attack as they thought”. Her mum has been in and out of hospital for the whole time we have been writing this blog. After a number of operations where her toes, then foot, then lower leg were amputated, she is now waiting to have a prosthetic limb fitted. “They’ve put one of those door entry things on her front door now, so she can just buzz people in.”

I follow Frances’ directions to her mother-in-law’s house and realise she is effectively directing me back home. It turns out that she, Hassan and Mia have been living part of their week only a couple of miles from our house. The semi is a hundred yards up from the Sainsbury’s I use on Saturdays and the Blockbusters I hire our DVDs from. I drive past their front door half a dozen times a week. Parallel lives.

I say hello to Hassan and, after if he is off the phone, introduce myself to one of his brothers, the only other person at home. Hassan tells him who I am and the website is brought up on the computer, by way of explanation.

On the nights they are here the three of them share the downstairs front room. There’s a double mattress on the new wooden floor and not much else.

“I suppose it’s a bit of a pain to keep taking her toys backwards and forwards from one place to the other?” I say to Frances.

“Yeah, it is a bit.”

“Maybe we should mention it on the blog. I bet you’d get some donations.”

“Could we?”

I don’t stay long. It’s a shame Hassan’s mum is not here. I would have liked to take a picture of her and Mia . Apparently she checks out the blog from time to time to see the latest photographs of her granddaughter.

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Beauty treatment

It’s the end of term and Frances has finished all the sessions on her course but still has to come into college so she can qualify for her bursary. “I’ve just been going to the college gym and to the beauty salon to have free treatments,” she says as we eat some lunch together in the refectory, “it’s been great.”

She was told last week that she has passed Level One and can start Level Two in September. She’s done okay in her maths and English lessons too.

“I have to say congratulations to you Frances, because I did not think you’d stick at it,” I say between forkfuls of roast pork. “I thought you’d be defeated all the travelling, the distance. But you’ve done it.” Frances beams. “I know you’re not a great one for the early mornings.”

If she, Hassan and Mia are at her flat in Wythenshawe Frances gets up at 5.30 to leave an hour later. One bus into town, another one across town – “just saves me having to walk” – and a third one to college. If they are staying at Hassan’s mum’s then she doesn’t have to get up until 6.45. “This morning was even better,” she says, “Hassan has bought a new car and so I had a lift. It’s been in an accident so it’s a bit mashed.”

“Mashed?”

“You know, smashed in.”

When we’re finished and our trays are stacked, I ask if I can take some pictures of her in the salon where she trains. “I could go and have something done, the second years will still be looking for models.”

The hair and beauty training area is set out like a hospital ward with beds against two walls. Heavy red curtains can be drawn around each one and trolleys with surgical looking equipment is laid waiting. Frances introduces me to her tutor Shona and asks if she can be a guinea pig.

“Will you have a spray tan?” asks Shona. “Or a bikini wax? Maybe an underarm wax?”

None of these are particularly appropriate today with her ‘personal photographer’ in tow so Frances asks if she can just have her eyebrows done. “Okay, no problem,” Shona says, “just wait outside please.”

She has to sit on the comfy seats in the corridor as if she were a client. “Perhaps they should offer you a cup of tea while you’re waiting,” I suggest. Frances laughs as she picks at the dry skin on her shoulders where she got sunburnt last week. “You should get some cream for that,” I say. “But I guess that’s more expense.”

“Unexpected items,” she says, as if it’s an entry in an imaginary accounts ledger she keeps in her head.

Shona comes out to tell Frances how pleased she is with her latest assignment. She also asks a bit more about me. We explain about the blog, about Mia and why I am interested in documenting Frances’ life. Shona says she’ll look forward to reading it and then gives Frances a gentle ticking off for not clearing it with her first. “You won’t photograph any of the other students will you?”

Nadine, one of the Level Two students, calls Frances back in and invites her to lie down on one of the treatment beds. I’m given a chair and take up a position next to her, like some visiting relative.

Nadine’s good. She works methodically for more than fifteen minutes, confident with the paint brush, cotton bud and tweezers. I get the impression she is one of the more proficient students. Shona comes to check progress. “Lovely,” she says as Frances lifts a mirror to see her stained black lashes and slightly red tinted eye brows.

There’s more activity on the other side of the room behind some of the red curtains. Judging from the discussion another ‘client’ has opted for the bikini wax and the trainee beauty therapist is being given guidance on how to conduct an initial consultation. “Listen to what she is telling you. I’m sure she doesn’t want to end up with a landing strip!”

“No swimming, no perfume, avoid hot baths and showers and don’t get a lash perm in the next 24 hours,” says Nadine to Frances at the end of her treatment. “That should last you a week or two.”

Today Frances isn’t having to bother with the buses at all because I am giving her a lift back to Hassan’s mum’s house.

To be continued…

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Mia goes paddling

Frances writes from her new ‘lappy’:

its friday. been in college this week how a dpepressing tuesday dont no y just felt like crying all day wednesday was better my mum went home on tuesday i went to see her she is well thank god but hopefully she wont get bad again and have to go back in i come back from hassans mums on wednesday after i finished collge had a ok night my friend came round and we were chatting and remanising i went in the big back garden with mia on thursday to enjoy the weather was out all day mia loved it we even got to no the naighbours. mia was spashing in the paddeling pool and i was making friends i regret staying out there for so long un covered because i have heat stroke now. i dont think im going anywere today i cant move it hurts tomuch mia is fine tho. mia was being nasty to me tho this morrning she kept scratching me and slapping my legs painfull. There is a take away evening on saturday i can pick anything i want and the staff pay so i will be going down for that and then sunday i will probaly get my stuff ready to go back down to hassans mums.

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Man in tux

I turn up at Frances’ place wearing a ‘tux’. Earlier in the afternoon someone had said I looked like James Bond. Or did they just say James Bond wears one of those?

“You’ll be pleased to see the place is a mess,” says Frances, as she leads me from the reception up to her flat. I’m always joking with her that her flat is too tidy, not photogenic enough.

“How did it go?” she asks. I’ve been a few streets away, photographing the Reclaim graduation ceremony for the Wythenshawe Girls’ project. Two dozen 12- and 13-year-old young woman, uncomfortable in hired gowns and mortar boards, have celebrated with family and dignitaries.

As the young women were arriving in three stretch limos I thought it might be fun if the photographer looked a bit like one of the paparazzi on the red carpet. A bit.

Frances was invited. Her own graduation ceremony would have been over five years ago and some of her cohort were there today, giving out awards to the latest Reclaim graduates. Sadly she had had a bad night with Mia teething and had only got up half an hour before the event started.

“I’ve got something for you,” I say to Frances as I make some room to sit down on one of the sofas. She knows what’s coming and she claps her hands together. “It’s like Christmas,” she exclaims.

Ruth, Reclaim’s director and I have colluded to get Frances online. Everyone who reads the blog likes the contributions that Frances makes but these have been limited to when she has the patience to type an entry into Facebook on her mobile phone. So Ruth has donated a redundant laptop and between us we have paid for a internet dongle.

“I feel like a proud mother,” she says as she logs on and inserts the dongle. “Oh, I am a proud mother already!”

“I’ve already put the web address in the favourites.”

“Oh, yeah,” she says scrolling down the latest entry about her and her small family shopping in Wythenshawe. Although she had read the text on Facebook, this is the first time she had seen the pictures.

“And it’s so small… I’ll be able to take it to college and look really important doing emails on the bus!”

Now she is crawling and pulling herself up, Mia doesn’t let her mum spend more than a couple of minutes with the new ‘toy’, demanding her attention by clinging on to the end of the sofa.

“I can’t stay long,” I say, getting up. “See if you can write one post a week… that would be brilliant.”

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Shopping trip

Frances needs some things from the district centre, and I am tagging along. It’s rainy so I’ve put aside my documentary photographer ethic and given them all a lift in my car.

On the way to the precinct Frances tells me I’m invited to take some pictures at Hassan’s brother’s stag night which is in a couple of weeks. “It’s not really a stag night,” she says, “in the Somali community it’s more like sitting round, talking and eating rice. Nice rice though. And the women get together and cut up onions.”

“Cut up onions?”

“Yeah. It’s called the night of the onions. There are two big meals to prepare for the wedding and the woman all come together and cut up onions. I’m going to that. There’s more to it than cutting up onions, obviously.”

I’ve never asked before and now seems like the right time: “Are you two married?”

“In the eyes of the Somali community we are,” says Frances, “but not legally. We wouldn’t be able to live together if we hadn’t had a small ceremony to make us official. But I’d like to do it properly one day, with lots of people, and a big party. But we can’t afford that now, we’re saving first for Mia’s birthday.” I had noticed a piggy-bank tin on the window ledge earlier.

The precinct feels depressing. The rain makes it worse. Everyone is either sheltering or dashing.

Frances and I go off to Poundland while Hassan takes the buggy to the cash machine. Yes, I have been into the pound shops near us, opposite the greengrocers we use, but this is more like a department store, it’s massive. I take shots of Frances choosing hair colour and notice all the shampoos.

“All these are just £1 then?”

“This is a good one,” says Frances, showing me a bottle of Palmolive shampoo for long hair with olive extract. I get a basket and take a couple of bottles.

“Look at these reading glasses,” I say. “These are about a tenner in the chemist’s.” Frances is amused by my apparent glee. I end up with some spare specs, a couple of reporters’ notebooks, and a big bag of wine gums as well as the shampoo.

We see Hassan coming out of Cash Generator as we leave with our purchases. “You sado,” shouts Frances.

“I need to go to Poundworld,” she says to me, “because they don’t do PG Tips in Poundland. And I’d go to Iceland for sugar because it’s a penny cheaper in there.” I open the wine gums and Hassan takes some.

Poundworld is much the same as Poundland. Stacked high with lots of branded products all at a quid. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are really ripping us off.

Hassan and Frances spend some time checking out the perfumes while one of the sales staff keeps an eye on us from the end of the aisle. “Surely these perfumes can’t all be £1?”

“Yeah,” says Frances. “They’re better than the real thing: they smell the same and last longer.”

While we are at the checkout (Frances has bought her tea bags and I’ve remembered we are out of washing powder), there is some consternation as the precinct security guard strides in. The staff relate an incident they have just witnessed on the threshold of their store.

“Did he hit her with a closed fist?” he asks, “or was it more of a slap?” He repeats their answers into his radio microphone.

The security guard has an American accent and it feels like we are extras in some TV crime series. “The cops are on their way,” he says before he walks back out into the rain.

“He’s Canadian,” Hassan tells me on our way to Asda. “Hates being confused with being American. There are loads of jobs in Canada, aren’t there?”

We’re in Asda now buying Coke and lemons. “When I can I get some brandy to go in it,’ says Frances, “but I haven’t had any for a few weeks now.”

Peep. Peep. Thank you for using the fast lane.

On the way back to the car Frances shows me a three-piece suite she’d like. “That one has a chair that swivels. So if you put it in the corner of your room and you want to turn around and speak to someone, you can just turn round on the chair.”

“And how much is all that?”

“Over £1,000.”

We walk back to the car. It’s still raining.

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Lazy day

“Have you got a smile for me? Have you? Have you got a smile for me? You can sit up now can’t you? You can. You can.” I’m back in baby mode. Click, click.

It’s late afternoon and they are all having a lazy day. Frances is still in her dressing gown and is getting Mia dressed. They’ve all just had a bath.

“Everything is still coming out looking dirty,” she says holding up a Babygro.

“You sound like an advert for…”

“Daz! I wouldn’t mind but I do use Daz,” she says, laughing.

“Where do you wash? Downstairs?”

“Yeah, They’re proper laundry ones.”

Frances wipes Mia’s body and face with cocoa butter oil. Click, click. Click. “She loves this stuff, she’s going to be licking herself all day. Hello Mia, hello Mia. You don’t like milk any more, you like food, don’t you?

“What food do you like?” I ask, half to Mia and half to Frances.

“Anything and everything as long as she can eat it: rice and fish and pasta and chicken… everything. If you leave the camera over there she’ll crawl for it. Come on Mia, come on, what’s this?” Click, click, click. “Big girl.”

We watch Mia crawling, showing off. “And how is your mum, Frances?”

Frances’ face changes, her smile drops. “She’s all right, she’s just… she’s not allowed out of hospital yet. At the moment they’re just trying to work out what’s gone on. They did a heart scan and it came back abnormal. They think she might of had a mini heart attack or stroke or something. They’re going to do more tests.

“She went a bit weird. Started saying strange things, just dead confused. Even when she was in hospital she’d say stuff like, put the potatoes on, really random stuff. She didn’t know where she was or who we were.”

Hassan comes in, looking smart as usual. He’s off back down to Moss Side later.

“Hi Hassan.”

“Hello.”

“Is that Daddy?” I say, holding both of Mia’s hands, walking her in Hassan’s direction.

I’m left in charge while Frances gets dressed and Hassan returns to the bedroom. Mia and I look out of the window together at the overgrown grass in the garden. It’d make a great play area if regularly maintained, but now it’s only good for a bug hunt.

“What can you see? Can you see any birdies? Oh there’s one. Can you see any? Can you see any birdies?”

When Frances is back in the room I ask about her accommodation.

“I’ve got my positive notice,” she says.

“From this place?”

“Yeah. Hopefully I’ll get higher up on the list.”

Frances was placed in this supported accommodation shortly after she gave birth. It was a condition put on her by social services: if she wanted to keep her baby she had to move out of her mother’s house – Frances’ childhood home. There was no choice.

Dunbar Street is run on behalf of the local authority and is really aimed at those young mums who are single and, for whatever reason, cannot live independently or with relatives. They are taught how to look after their child and are given whatever support they need to start a new life on their own.

I think Frances being here has been an anomaly. As far as I can tell she hasn’t accessed any of the support services and because she and Hassan are effectively a couple she no longer fits the criteria for inclusion. The rules state that partners are not allowed to stay more than three nights a week and so Frances and Hassan move out for several nights a week, back to his flat or to his mum’s.

And Dunbar Street is too far from Moss Side. Frances feels cut off and isolated from her friends and family. The only up side has been she is close to Wythenshawe Hospital for the times when her mum has been here. So now Frances is trying to move back. She hopes to get a housing association property – what would have been a council house – and has to use some online bidding system each week to do this. Her ‘positive notice’ from Dunbar Street – a good reference which confirms her and Mia’s situation – will give her more points, greater priority.

“How do you bid for them?”

“You just click on them. It’s better to do it on a Thursday morning because that’s when the new ones come in.” I remind myself that Frances doesn’t have a computer and has to go down to the library, a good 20-minute buggy-push, to get onto the Homefinder website.

“So, it knows who you are… and your situation… and so someone, somewhere, assesses the people who have bid and decides who has greater priority?”

“Yeah. Usually you’ll have to do over 300 bids before you get anything. And you can only bid for three a week.”

“300 bids? That’s 100 weeks which is, like, two years?”

“Yep. Ah big girl! Say Uncle Len, Uncle Len.”

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