22 May Chapter Fifteen. Manchester again, and Alma.
As we settled ourselves back into Manchester, we stepped into our new, slightly too big shoes and clomped around, pretending to be grown ups. I found a job as a theatre and TV agent, Jon freelanced lecturing in sound and video and we rented a tall, red brick house in South Manchester with more bedrooms than we needed, stripped wooden floors and high white walls and windows. We had swapped sitting beneath a tree pulling chestnut splinters out of our feet for scheduling our lives on iphone calendars and wearing clothes that required ironing. I turned 30 in the September and celebrated with a ride on the East Lancs steam train in my favourite yellow dress followed by dancing my red shoes to shreds in the Tiger Lounge basement.
I loved my job. Seeing theatre in the evenings and talking shop with my boss during the day suited me and all the things I had missed while in France. I enjoyed talking to actors about their work, learning negotiation skills when talking to casting directors and the different quirks of tv, theatre or commercial contracts. I ignored any inklings of sadness that my own creativity had been pushed aside, reminding myself that I could find an outlet in styling our home, throwing parties and feasts, organising rambles and documenting our new life on instagram.
And then, on July 14, just after a year of returning to Manchester, we found out I was pregnant. We were preparing to see Neil Young in Liverpool that evening when I thought I should probably take a pregnancy test before we headed out, just to put my mind at ease. Watching Neil Young that evening felt very different to how I had anticipated. The world now felt immensely vast and our future full of a blinding unknown warmth. On Monday I told my boss. This was a blow as I hadn’t been there very long, I had just begun to hit my stride and I wouldn’t qualify for maternity leave. She was incredibly kind and understanding and we agreed, with slight trepidation and great naivety, that somehow we would make it work. In August we visited Paris for a friend’s wedding and then travelled to stay in an Italian villa with friends. I swam in the pool every day and wrote letters to the little person I would one day meet. I had started drawing again, experimenting with inks and pencils. For the first time iI felt I had enough space to do this. My mind was calm and I could allow myself the time.
Autumn arrived, and with it bad news. An interrupted aortic arch was noticed in the twenty week scan, tests were taken, positive results received and we were faced with two choices. I have written more about our daughter Alma and our termination at twenty four weeks here.
In early December I attempted to return to work only a week after giving birth to Alma, convinced I should keep myself busy and distracted, but broke down on my first day back and was sent home until after ht new year. In an attempt to process our pain, we had a dinner party with close friends and toasted to Alma. I drank too much Cava and fell asleep in a friend’s lap as she stroked my hair. We spent December cooking lavish meals and drinking endless wine, listening to our favorite songs and crying. I had poured all the love I didn’t know where to place into decorating the house for the festive season but looking back, I remember Christmas day as a long, dark, drunk tunnel. On new year’s eve we attempted to meet friends in a pub but after twenty minutes I had a panic attack and we went home and fell asleep on the sofa watching a horror film. The Walking Dead saw me through a lot of days when I could not leave our bed. I reasoned that life could be so much worse.
In January we attended Alma’s cremation at Southern Cemetery. Six wooden baby sized coffins were revealed as the red velvet curtains parted and the organist played Baa Baa Black Sheep. We sat in a pew at the back and watched the couples in front of us silently sob into each other’s arms. Once the ceremony was over we walked up the road to the Spoon Inn. The barmaid, noticing Jon’s suit and my black dress gently enquired who’s funeral we had attended. We told her we had cremated our baby daughter, paused and then laughed with the uncomfortable guilt of burdening her with this information. Once we had sat down with our drinks, she wandered over to our table and placed two double whiskeys in front of us without saying a word.. These small, yet gargantuan acts of kindness will stay with me forever.
In February we took Alma’s ashes to the top of my favourite hill in Glossop and buried her beneath the earth and the moss. She is there with the sky, the wind, the rain, the sun and the call of the grouse. We sat with her and thanked her for visiting us, for bringing so much love into our lives.
In March, for Alma’s due date, we flew to Lisbon for a long weekend. The light, the colours, the food soothed our pain to such a gentle murmur that we ended up missing our flight back and had to take a long, convoluted route back to Manchester. The reality of this hit me hard after our Portuguese romance. I spent most of the journey drinking canned gin and tonics while sobbing as I wrote anguished notes into my phone.
In April we climbed the three peaks: Scafell, Snowdon and Ben Nevis, one weekend at a time and raised over £3,000 for the rainbow ward at St Mary’s hospital.
Grief came and went in waves of confusion, despair, elation, anger, love, despondency. I resented friends who became pregnant and I would wish dead babies on careless drivers or a rude customer in front of me in a queue.
And then that Summer we discovered I was pregnant again. I was furious. I was not ready for this baby. I was not ready to replace Alma, I couldn’t bear the thought of everyone feeling secretly relieved that a new baby would put everything behind us. But I knew it was also time, we were ready for a child. After having spent six months pregnant and then returning to ‘normal’ life I had quickly realised that I not only missed our daughter but the future we had been anticipating. And this was our chance to find that future again.
Exactly a year and a day after Alma’s due date, Gryffin was born on the floor at the bottom of our bed on King’s road in Manchester. He screamed and screamed and didn’t stop for six months. He was a tiny, dark haired fragile thing. We struggled with latching, his weight stayed low, he wouldn’t be put down and rarely slept for longer than twenty minutes at a stretch. I felt like I was losing my mind most of the time and was exasperated by this strange alien who had invaded our lives.
Everyone had told me to prepare myself for the most incredible rush of love of my life, that the sleeplessness wouldn’t matter because I would be so overwhelmed with love. And when I didn’t feel these things I thought there must have been something wrong with me, something lacking in me, I didn’t have the mothering instinct. I missed my friends, I missed going out in the evenings and being spontaneous. I missed wearing clothes that weren’t sacks covered in breast milk and vomit. I had no idea what kind of a mum I was, because I definitely wasn’t like the cool, thin mums I saw on instagram who declared they were ‘winging it’ but always seemed to have time to apply red lipstick, somehow buy the right clothes and find a cool mum gang. I would go to baby groups and want to scream ‘This isn’t all I am you know, I’m not JUST a mum!’. Gryffin slowly eased into life and the sharpness of the world seemed to hurt his skin and jangle his nerves a little less. His fighting little body filled out, his hair turned from black to ice blonde and he began to show joy and humour on top of his perpetual disappointment in his surroundings. At ten months he walked and never stopped moving, possibly in an attempt to escape. We became friends, he was my gang.
In this time I had decided not to return to work. We knew it would probably be a good idea to have another child quite soon and we were considering a move out of Manchester. I also knew that if I were to ever pursue a creative path again, this was probably a good opportunity. So we gave up our beautiful house in Manchester and found a much smaller wreck in Hebden Bridge which. much to our amazement we could afford despite the desirable area. In the first months of our time here I kept a diary of my days with Gryffin, recording which bakery sold the best bread, where to find duck food to take to the canal, who I had spoken to in the play park. I remember one day sitting on the terrace at the Fox and Goose and saying to Jon ‘I think this place will be good for us, something is going to happen here’.
We renovated the house with the scraps of time we had when Jon wasn’t commuting to his job at Manchester Uni. I started selling vintage again online and documenting the changes we were making to our new home on Instagram. When Gryff was two and a half, Elwin was born and a couple of months after his birth I decided to work towards a collection of cards and prints with the illustrations I had carried on creating since my first pregnancy with Alma. I wrote more about this here.
The rest, I think you may know?
And there, my friends, I shall leave this story. If you ever consider writing your own, I would encourage you to immediately sit down and do it, in some ways it has felt like an opportunity to live it all over again.
Thank you for joining me. xx