[Scintilla Day 03] Where’s your mama gone?

The Orthopaedic Hospital, Gobowen.

Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Little baby Don (Little Baby Don)
Where’s your mama gone? (Where’s your mama gone?)
Far, far away

It’s 1971.

British Leyland have launched the Morris Marina, Margaret Thatcher schemes to abolish free milk for school children, and in a hospital in the middle of the countryside on the border between England and Wales, I’m in hospital. Despite being a mere eighteen months old, I’ve spent a large part of my life in hospital having corrective surgery on my left hip, which was congenitally dislocated but not spotted initially because they didn’t do a postnatal check for ‘clicky hips’ in those days.

In addition to surgery, they’ve put me in traction, hung me upside down on a special bed made by the young apprentices at the local Rolls Royce factory and tried all sorts of experimental remedies, all without any degree of success. One of the latest things they’ve tried is ‘frog plaster’, where my legs are forced out at unnatural angles and plastered into place. For months at a time – and it’s going to need regular replacements because in addition to growing, children of my age need nappies and well, I think it’s safe to say that things down there must get pretty ripe.

Luckily – for me at least, I don’t remember any of it. The sole memory I have of the whole ghastly process is of a tall, dark man coming towards me with what I’m guessing must have been a tool they used to cut off the plaster. In my head it’s whirring with all the high-pitched and anxiety-inducing sound of a dentist’s drill. My mum says that for years afterwards I would scream and hide if I heard a vacuüm cleaner.

My mum, though – she hasn’t forgotten. She doesn’t talk about it much. She told me – just the once – about how she felt when she discovered I had to go into hospital aged what? four or five months, maybe? She told me how the sight of the empty nursery had distressed her so much she had to give the baby equipment away. She told me how she used to drive to the hospital, a fifty mile or so round trip, to visit me in the afternoon. If your baby was in hospital in those days you didn’t get the option to sleep over on a camp bed at the foot of their cot. There were no Ronald McDonald houses or twenty-four hour vending machines. The wards were ruled by old-school nurses, the kind that wore starched cuffs and intricately folded caps. On one occasion my mum turned up and someone had cut off all my baby curls; apparently the hours spent lying on my back had caused them to become matted. Another time she arrived to find the all other babies wearing my clothes – and I know she bought me beautiful things back then: velour all-in-ones in scarlet and navy stripes bought mail-order from Sweden where people dressed their children in bright and stimulating things, a world away from dreary seventies polyester.

I don’t know how she coped with all that. The photograph above is shocking for all kinds of reasons, but what makes me saddest is how harrowed my poor mum looks. She’s always been slim but I’ve never seen her as gaunt as she is in that picture, and that smile… is it a smile? It’s hard to tell. She used to leave late in the afternoon, always telling me that she had to go now, to buy some potatoes for Daddy’s tea. Apparently when I started talking, one of my first sentences was, ‘Daddy eats lots potatoes.’

I don’t know where I heard the song first. Did they play the radio on the children’s ward, I wonder, or did my family or one of the nurses sing it to me? I guess a cheesy yet catchy song like Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep was always going to be popular with a child, and I know that singing it became one of my party pieces when I was a little older.When I listen to it now, the song horrifies me. All I can think of is my poor mum hearing it on the radio, driving all those miles in the dark in a knackered old car, and leaving her baby behind, day after day after day.

This post is in response to a prompt from The Scintilla Project: Talk about a memory triggered by a particular song.

[Scintilla Day 02] All grown up

Baby's hand.

I went into labour at about half past midnight. I breathed through the contractions for a few hours, distracting myself by watching ABBA: The Movie on late night tv.  At a little after three I woke my dad. It took him a few moments to understand what was going on.

‘I need to go to the hospital. Now.’

The drive there was awful. Every chipping and  pothole on the road sent huge waves of pain up through my perineum towards the centre of my being. The only way I could cope was to squeeze my hands under my thighs and suspend my torso in an endless tricep dip. The hospital was locked up and dark when we arrived, and  it took the porter ages to answer the bell; he had a wheelchair with him, and insisted I sat in it, despite my protests that I was fully capable of walking, thankyou-very-much.

After that, it all becomes blurred. I know there was a deep, deep bath – long enough for me to lie down fully in, too – and an enormous plastic jug, like the one I had in my kitchen, and at the height of each contraction my son’s father poured jugful after jugful over my belly, and I surrendered myself to rhythms which were of me but not mine as my body took over, leaving me a mere passenger along for the ride.

Night became morning, and outside the frosted windows of the delivery room a pair of workmen listened to Radio One on their scaffolding, silhouetted against the glass. One was much taller than the other: funny how I can still see it so clearly. In a haze of endorphins and entonox I laughed to myself about two strangers – two men – being so close to me as I writhed and squatted and panted on the bed with my nightshirt hoiked up around my armpits. In the distance I could hear a fearsome, terrible noise. I once found myself outside an abattoir, and the sounds were reminiscent of that –  a long, keening wail punctuated by guttural grunts. As my head cleared briefly I realised it was me who was making those noises, and that I had no control at all over what was happening to me and that nature was at the helm, steering the great wreck of my body with its priceless cargo safely into harbour.

The second stage of labour was fast. Nineteen minutes from start to finish, although it felt like hours. And the baby was at least two weeks late – four, by my calculations –  and when he came he was huge and I tore and we spent our first minutes together with him propped on my chest, still covered with blood and mucous, while a student midwife practised for her handicrafts badge in my nether regions. They showed me the placenta; it was big and liverish and dotted with calcification.

We just stared at each other. He didn’t cry at all, just fixed his beady eyes on mine and kept looking. The front of his head was bald and his forehead was so stern and wrinkled. I don’t think the midwife could have been a Star Trek TNG fan like I was back then because she didn’t laugh when I said he looked like a Klingon; she scolded me and told me he was beautiful, and I think I started to cry a little then because it hit me like a slap round the head, he was infinitely beautiful and he was mine, and I was a mother: his mother.

I thought I knew it all. I was just twenty-one.

All grown up.

This post is in response to a prompt from The Scintilla Project: When did you realise you were a grown up? What did this mean for you? Shock to the system? Mourning of halcyon younger days? Or the embracing of the knowledge that you can do all the cool stuff adults do: drink wine, go on parent-free vacations, eat chocolate without reprimand?

[Scintilla Day 01] Who are you?

I don’t mind telling stories about myself – hell, I have some really good stories that I’m often asked to relate to new victims: there’s the one that involves a plant pot and a curtain rail on a first date, and the one about the cat on heat- I can guarantee that if I told you these stories you’d either be peeing yourself with laughter or looking at me in a slightly terrified manner. Possibly both at the same time. Through neither luck nor judgement I’ve ended up in some strange situations in my life, and I fend off potential ridicule by turning them into stories, stories that I know will entertain people and either endear me to  or alienate me from them forever.

Talking about myself is another matter entirely. Opening myself up, letting my inner thoughts spill forth like seeds from a ripe, split melon – that’s not something that comes easily. I can articulate the thoughts and the feelings, I can even put them down in words, but sharing them takes me well out of my comfort zone. I have a whole sackful of cunning strategies to avoid this – and yes, I suspect telling my legendary stories is probably one of them. Choosing not to answer questions like, ‘Who are you?’ should probably be another, but it’s a little late for that now, isn’t it?

I was mulling over the question during idle moments this morning, and the more I turned it over, the more I realised that the answer depends in a large part on who’s asking it. My mum would tell you that I’m her daughter, my former colleagues would say I was a fellow nurse. My son would be the only person in the world who could tell you that I’m his mother, and I’d like to hope that my partner would say I’m a lover, an equal and a friend.

I know it’s not fashionable nowadays to define oneself in relation to others, and that some people might say there’s a hint of dependence there, or the suggestion of subservience, of subsumed identity; but I don’t exist in a vacuüm. Like John Donne said, ‘No man is an island,’ and that makes perfect sense to me. Without the people I care for and the roles I choose to assume, I’d be a duller, flatter version of myself. There’d be less quirks, less intricate details, fewer opportunities to challenge myself and blossom through rising to the occasion. I would be quite boring, I think, and more to the point, I’d be lonely and miserable. Sometimes people are like mirrors, shining your best – and worst – bits right back in your face.

And most of my stories involve other people, too. Yes, even the one about the cat in heat. Hang around long enough and I might even share that story, and hopefully plenty more that will show – rather than tell – you who I am.

This post is a response to prompts from The Scintilla Project, a fortnight of story sharing

Countdown to Scintilla

Well, I think we can safely say that my good intentions to participate in Reverb11 were well and truly scuppered by a bout of illness garnished with a hefty soupcon of real life. At the time I did feel a vague and nagging sense of regret but really, I had so much other stuff going on that the whole project seemed to sneak by without me noticing.

BUT! A few weeks ago I learned that some of the jolly people who took up the hastily-dropped Reverb 11 baton had created a new project which sounded just as – if not more – exciting. It’s called Scintilla, and it starts tomorrow, so hurry on over there now and sign up. You can use the #scintilla hashtag, too, if you like that kind of thing. There’s a part of me that can’t wait to get back into the swing of regular blogging, and another part that’s just the tiniest bit scared, because I haven’t been writing that much lately, and what I have been writing has mostly been rudimentary Welsh.

In a roundabout way, the writing Welsh thing is actually a good thing, because one of the things I was doing when real life got in the way of my Reverbing was plucking up the courage to leave the job I was doing, the one which was making me miserable and ill and not a nice person to live with. In the end, it turned out that I didn’t actually need the courage, because I found something I wanted to do more – which was to take an intensive Express Welsh course. (I should point out that the ‘express’ bit refers to the unnatural speed at which we’re learning – I’m not learning how to right schlocky newspaper articles about Lady Di conspiracy theories.)

Learning a new language is blooming hard, even when you’ve been surrounded by it for the past ten years and picked up little bits (helpful phrases like, ‘My breasts are like the mountains of Snowdon‘ and suchlike), but I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying not doing the Job of Doom and enjoying not feeling like I was selling a little bit of my soul every time I walked through the doors of that place.

Anyway. Onwards and upwards, as they say. And plenty of Scintilla excitement. And lastly, here’s a nice picture I took at the Hafod Estate last week, to show you all just how beautiful Wales is.



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