For Now, You Still Fit In My Arms

If only they hadn’t measured time, carved it up, named it and logged it. Maybe things would be different. But now we all hear the clock ticking, which we would never have heard if time as we know it had not been invented. Of course, time exists by itself. Just as the new buds bloom in the Spring, only to curl and dry and fall in the Autumn. Just as fresh faces become wrinkled. Just as dark hair turns grey. Spring turns to summer and before you know it, it’s winter again. Everything in the world is cyclical and there is nothing you can do about getting older. But I’m sure time got faster when they named it, when they carved it up into segments of years, months, weeks and days.

Like you. Like when you were just a gestation. You were four weeks, then five, then six, then seven. Every moment of it was counted and numbered. Time drags when you are waiting for a foetus to become a child. It seems an impossible and unmovable thing. It won’t shift. Yet it does. Time doesn’t just move on, it moves us on. That’s what it does. And we are rarely ready.

I’m never ready. I’m always behind. I’m always dragging my feet, right from the moment you are born. Of course, I want to see you grow. The very thought of it excites me. Who will you look like? What will you become? When will you first walk and talk? I’m excited about all the memories I know are glistening on the horizon. First swim, first ice cream, first Christmas, first word. I know them all because I have been here before three times.

And three times came and went far too fast, so with you I’ve been trying to hang on, trying to claw it back, trying to savour it, make it last, bottle it and contain it. Only it’s stupid of me really, because experience tells me none of this is truly possible. Time and years are like sand, when you watch it on the beach, when it washes in and out, never staying the same.

Why is it, every time one of you had a birthday I had to fight back the tears? Such strange, stupid tears. I know it was pride and ‘look at you now’. I know it was love and aching. But it was also desperate sadness and regret. It was disbelief that time had led us so ruthlessly to this point. To first birthday, to second, to third, to first day at school, to first teenage year. And it’s not that I want to turn the clock back…when I see photos of my babies, I instantly smile, maybe sometimes I tear up, but I wouldn’t want to swap who they are now, for who they were then..With time and change comes revelation and surprise. Chats in the kitchen after school. Passions, and music and politics and arguments. But maybe I would…just a bit…just for a minute, I’d go back if I could, but not for long. I’d reach into that old photograph and pull out that chubby toddler, plant a kiss upon her sweet head, smell her, feel the weight of her in my arms, close my eyes against it all and remember.

But of course, you can’t. You can’t ever go back, except for in your mind, except for with photos.

And so with you, I’m drinking you in. I promised us both. I would do everything by instinct this time, learn from the mistakes of the past, listen to no one but you. Give you everything you needed on demand. Know that love and cuddles and comfort can never spoil a child. From your siblings, I have learnt to follow my heart. To hang on as tight as I can, to absorb every moment into my soul, to know that nothing lasts forever, and sleepless nights one day become something I miss.

I can still fit you in my arms. I can hold you in my lap. I can scoop you up and tuck you under and lift you up. I can make you smile. I can make you laugh. I can tickle and kiss you and make your eyes grow wide with wonder with the smallest and simplest of things. Bubbles in the garden. Bumblebees in the flowers. Chocolate buttons and Mr. Tumble. Milkies.

You’re still mine for now, but not forever.

I can cradle you in the crook of my arm and at night that’s where I still find you, warm curls against my cheek, small hand inside my top, clutching, hanging on to comfort. At the end of the day I can smell your day upon your skin and it’s my addiction to inhale it all, as if somehow I still believe I can bottle it and treasure it forever. Grass and dirt, milk and chocolate, play-dough, and beans, and strawberries and chicken feed. It’s all there, and I don’t even want to bathe you, I don’t even want to wash the dirt away.

When I hold you I get the urge to squeeze you, to squish you back inside of me so that the whole thing can start again. I want to never forget the weight of your small body in my arms, the press of your soft round cheek against mine, the feel of your tired head upon my shoulder, the caress of your tiny fingers on my neck and in my hair, your heart beating against mine like it did from the start. Your breath.

I can’t really remember what you were like a year ago, and that’s hard. A year from now the same will apply. I’ll see photos and smile longingly but I won’t be able to conjure up the feel of your body in my arms or the smell of your day. I’ll have you there and then, in the here and now, where you exist from one moment to the next and I know it will be just as wonderful and just as precious and yet just as fleeting and impossible to hold onto.

The moments after your birth are the clearest to me, and perhaps they are with all my children. The panic and the fear, and the sitting up to see you whisked out of the room by one arm and one leg, and the big massive size of you , and the room full of faceless professionals and it was just me, in a haze and a blur, alone on the bed seeing you wrenched from the room. It was just me and you, though they were taking you from me, I saw your face and I heard your cry and everyone laughed and sighed in relief, and it was all going to be fine, and everything was worth it because you were so cute, so damn cute and I could tell you were mine.

It felt like years waiting for you to come back, and then you did, carried in by a proud and smiling midwife, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a blue knitted hat, and placed into my desperate, aching arms, and oh what a face, just like your brothers, what a bruiser, what a chap, what a chunk, what a boy. And it was me and you in a spinning moment that in truth could have lasted forever. And you were safe. And I loved you.

Addicted to you, because that’s what happens.

And now here we are. That moment seems so very long ago.

Time does not care for mothers like me, who want to calm it down a bit, who want to drag our heels and say hold on, not forever, but just a bit…

Time is impatient for the next season, and a newborn becomes a one year old, and a crawler becomes a walker, and a toddler starts to talk, and a child has their first day of school. And everything constantly, restlessly moves on.

It’s like every birthday I can see the ghost of them all waving to me from behind us all. Everywhere I look, everywhere I go, there are echoes of the past. One day I can feel their legs around my waist and then the next day they are far too big and heavy and tall to be carried. You can never recall the last day. The last day you carried them up the stairs. The last day you tucked them in and read them a bedtime story. We remember the firsts, but not the lasts.

But anyway, for now, a day after your second birthday, I can still fit you in my arms. I can still carry you up to bed, and cradle you like a baby. I can still scoop you up and know you won’t push me away. I can still smother you in kisses and breathe in the scent of you. We can still be the centre of each other’s worlds. For now.



What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?


What comes first? The characters of the plot? I guess the answer is different for every writer, and often different for every book. I’ve been thinking about this since one of my daughters showed a rare interest in my writing and asked me what came first; my characters or my plots? My immediate answer was the characters, as this is how it so often feels. But as I went through the novels one by one, I had to admit that it’s different each time. For example, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was an idea that grew into a character, followed by a more complex plot. The Tree of Rebels, which will be my next release, was undoubtedly plot before characters, more so than any other book I’ve written. I’ve blogged before about how difficult this made the process, and how it has taken longer for me to understand my characters and feel comfortable with them. With Elliot Pie (a book only in its first draft) it was the character first, but his character, in being someone who was intrinsically curious about strangers, was the plot. So they evolved simultaneously.

Having thought about it for some time I realised that my novels, This Is Nowhere and The Mess Of Me both have something in common. They were both written in the same way. I had the character first, and then had to create a plot to go with them.

I’m not sure this is the best way to write a book, but it’s just the way it worked with these two. With This Is Nowhere, I had the character in my head for some time, and with the character came the whole feel and tone of the book. Slightly sombre, dark around the edges, yet gentle, confused, struggling through mystery. I knew the character was a male in his late twenties or early thirties, and I knew he was rootless and aimless, a drifter. He had never grown up, but why was that? I knew he had a bad relationship with his father but the rest of that came much later. I knew he had a recurring stomach ailment, and had turned his back on the religion he had been brought up with. I had images in my head of a boy running across a sun baked field, though running from what I had no idea. The whole thing seemed to evolve in my head through feelings and images. I got the idea for the plot involving his missing mother when I was walking my dogs in the woods one day. I’m pretty sure, though it is hard to recall now, that my daughter had spoken to me about a missing persons case, and that had set something off in my head. What if this drifter was to return to his small home town in order to find out what happened to his mother, who vanished when he was a child?

With The Mess Of Me it was harder. In this case, I would probably not advise coming up with the character before the plot, although in all honesty I had absolutely no control over this!

Lou Carling started talking to me when I was about half way through writing The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. This was fantastic to me at the time. Having had a long break from writing, in tackling The Boy I was giving it all a go again, seeing if I still had the urge and the passion. When Lou started talking and grumbling, I was overjoyed because I had that feeling again. Of fireworks and ideas exploding in my head, of panic and excitement knotting in my belly, of wanting to hurry home to the laptop, of needing to scrawl notes onto scrap paper so I wouldn’t lose a thing. Essentially, Lou let me know that it was back. Writing was back.

I let her babble on for a while, mostly because she really amused me. She had just finished her GCSE’s and had a long summer before A-Levels ahead of her. She was deeply cynical about everything and everyone, and had a rather filthy mouth. Her best friend was a boy called Joe, a lanky, hazel eyed boy whose mother was her mother’s best friend. I could see Lou and hear her. In fact she barely left me alone. She would have constant conversations in my head, really interesting little nuggets of dialogue I just had to scribble down for later. But I had no plot. What was this book going to be about? What was going to happen to her? What did she want? What did she fear?

It took a while, but I got there in the end purely by listening to her, and being witness to the world that started to build around her. The claustrophobic council estate, growing up without money, feeling exasperated and embarrassed by her family. Hating everyone, especially herself.

I’m happy to admit that large parts of Lou are based on me, on my own experiences, on my own views and feelings growing up. In many ways, she is the character closest to me, at that age anyway. But I allowed her more freedom, letting her express herself when I was too shy to. Immensely liberating, I can tell you. The plot I ended up with actually came from a strange childhood memory.

When I was young, my mother had a friend who had five sons. She was a larger than life kind of woman, large in build and large in voice. She would sweep you in for a cuddle and nearly break your bones. She used to make jokes about swapping my mum’s daughters for her sons, and I used to think she was serious, and I was just a little bit afraid of her. I loved going to her house to play though. With her two youngest sons, me and my sister and brother used to trespass onto the grounds of their local school and play games with their pet dog. We would climb and hide in trees and bushes and behind walls and the dog would look for us. I can also remember playing with a huge mound of cardboard boxes in their back garden, making dens out of them, climbing up them and leaping off to crush the boxes below.

Her three older sons were teenagers when we were small. They flitted in and out of the background, and as I was so shy I probably never spoke to any of them. I watched them get the odd clip around the ear. One even had his mouth washed out with soap one day. But they were like mysteries to me. Part of my life, and yet totally unknown. They could have been anyone. They could have had any kind of life without me knowing. I had no idea who they were, where they went to, what they did, or what they dreamed about.

One day we were coming up the front path and one of the teenage boys was sat on the doorstep with his head in his hands looking absolutely miserable. In the cool dark of the kitchen, I overheard my mother’s friend telling my mum he was in so much trouble. They muttered and murmured in there for some time, while he remained on the doorstep. I never did find out what he’d done wrong.

So somehow, for some reason, this all crept into Lou’s world. The house full of boys. The mother on the warpath, driven to distraction by her unruly brood. Having these people you’ve grown up with, and yet never really know. Mysteries that unravel just out of reach and over the heads of young children who are told to go out and play.

The drug running storyline was of course utterly fabricated. It could have been anything really, the trouble the boys were in. Everything else from here on was pure imagination!

In many ways the drug running activities of Joe’s older brothers, and the way both Joe and Lou get pulled into it all, is a sub-plot to the main one, which is simply Lou’s journey over that summer. Her determination to lose weight and get skinny. Her finding herself, without it sounding too much of a cliche, was central to it all.

So that’s the story of The Mess Of Me. Where it came from and how it happened. It is probably my most character driven book, with the plot almost taking a back seat to the characters.

What about you? As a reader, do you ever wonder what came first, the plot or the characters? Can you ever tell?

What about you writers? Is it always the plot first, the characters later? Or the other way around? Which way does it happen for you, and does it make it harder to write if it happens in a way you are not used to?

Feel free to comment below!






Why Mother’s Day Is A Pisstake

1654270_733461476673120_910582127_n (2)


Before I start, let me just say that it’s not just Mother’s Day that gets on my nerves, it’s all these commercialised ‘days’ we have to have. It’s the fact that you can tell what ‘day’ is approaching by what exuberant displays greet you when you walk into the supermarket. For example, my local Home Bargains shop was nothing short of a confused mess just recently when they were displaying Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter all at the same time!

Loads of things annoy me about Mother’s Day. Maybe I’m bitter and cynical. Well yeah, probably a bit. I’ve had plenty of nice ones, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had plenty of those sweet little cards they help them to make at school, and I’ve had croissants smeared with jam brought up to me on a tray in bed, and I’ve had kisses and cuddles and flowers and the rest of it. But I’ve also never had a Mother’s Day where I wasn’t hanging the washing out on the line at some point, or sorting the next load out, or planning the next days lunch boxes. It’s like once the duties are performed, everything goes back to normal.

And I do think people see it as a duty. The shops tell us what we ought to be doing. They tell us what we ought to be buying and when. I was in my local Tesco yesterday and the ‘Mother’s Day’ aisle was full of bemused looking shoppers, hastily shoving bunches of flowers under their arms, as I did, whilst probably thinking exactly what I was, surely I can do better than this? It’s all so contrived, that’s the problem. It screams of tokenism to the extent that it just becomes embarrassing. It’s Mother’s Day, therefore I shall buy a pastel coloured card with flowers and butterflies on it and give it to my mother to thank her for giving birth to me way back when. What else? Okay, let’s look around. What do women like? More specifically, what do mother’s like?

This is the other thing that annoys me. It makes me want to pull out my hair. Because apparently us mothers are all the same. It doesn’t matter how old we are, or where we are from, or what we believe in or dream about, we all like flowers. And chocolates. And teddy bears. Oh, and polka dotted garden gloves. And pastel coloured watering cans. And ‘smellies’ to pamper ourselves with. And even more infuriatingly, chick lit books and rom com dvds! Grrrr!

It’s just as bad on Father’s Day. They get treated to the same assumptions. Whiskey and ‘manly’ chocolate such as Toberlone and Yorkie. Driving gloves, and footballs, and mini tools and t-shirts with slogans such as ‘I’m the Daddy’ on them. They get breakfast in bed too, cards made by the kids in the shapes of ties and cars, and then everything goes back to normal. Why do we do it to ourselves?

Now I’m sure there are people out there who put more effort in, and if so, I congratulate you. I’m sure there are husbands who put real thought into what their wife and the mother of their children would enjoy on this special day. Maybe she gets taken out for dinner, or maybe she gets a day to herself, or a voucher for a beauty treatment or some such shit. I still don’t care. I still think it’s a pisstake. I still don’t think we need these days.

It’s patronising for one thing. It’s like we’re saying; for most of the year I will take you for granted and neglect to tell you what you mean to me, but on this one special day I will do the opposite and make sure you feel spoiled. Surely we should be treating each other better on a more regular basis?

My husband and I, being the cynical pair we are, gave up on Valentine’s Day years ago. The first few years we were together we felt like we had to go along with it. We both bought soppy cards and we both scoured the Valentine’s shopping aisle for useless and pathetic suggestions. We soon realised what a complete waste of time it was. We don’t even bother with anniversary cards or presents now. What do we do instead? We grab small moments between child-rearing and working, to reminisce on how many years it’s been now, and what silly things we can remember about that night…I tend to remember music, and there are still certain songs that will make me think about meeting him and falling in love. Surely that’s enough? That, and being as good to each other as we can be.

Christmas cards is another. Why do so many trees have to die so that we can send cards to people we don’t bother with the rest of the year? I stopped buying them and sending them years ago. Tedious and pointless. I won’t be dictated to by my local supermarket. I know what time of year it is, and I don’t need their flamboyant displays of utter crap items screaming at me for months on end.

Mother’s Day is annoying because it so often ends up being a token day, full of token gestures that amount to very little. I’ve had too many where I have ended up bristling with resentment, because after all the flowers and chocolates, the daily grind goes on. In my opinion Mother’s Day should be spent in the following way;

Women who have given birth, and therefore know what is is like to carry another human around in their belly, before pushing and grunting and screaming and heaving that said human out of their nether regions, only to be then thrust helplessly into a whirlwind of sleepless nights, shitty nappies, teething and tantrums, should be able to get together with their own mother’s, minus the lovely, dear offspring.

These women, these mother’s, daughters and sisters should be allowed to get together around a kitchen table, with mugs of tea and plentiful cake. They should be left alone for as long as they require. They should not have the fear of interruption by man or child. They should be free to moan, bitch, gossip, cry and laugh with each other for as long as they need. They should be able to unburden themselves of fear, resentment, exhaustion and bitterness. They should be able to congratulate themselves on a job well done, before the day is done, and it is back to business as usual.

Tomorrow, me and my family are hosting a Mother’s Day tea party for my unsuspecting mother. She thinks she is coming over to have a cuppa with me, but actually it will be my brother and his family and my sister and hers. I’ve been baking cupcakes all day. I’m sure she will be touched and pleased, and I’m sure we will all have a lovely day. But I hope she knows when she leaves, that I feel this way about her all of the time, not just once a year. She gave me life and she worked her arse off to keep a roof over our heads. She makes me laugh with her eccentric ways and her sensitivity. I see a lot of me in her, and from the moment my first child was born, I began to develop genuine sympathy for what she went through looking after us all. Now, I know!

I hope she goes home knowing that she is always loved and appreciated, because really we shouldn’t need the greeting card industry to remind us to do it! So my advice is this. If you have a mother, go and see her. Go and spoil her. But not just tomorrow. Do it whenever you can and do it when it is least expected. Think about her dying and not being with you anymore and get your arse over there to share a cup of tea and a conversation. Life is bloody short, and if we leave it all to random, token days to tell people what they mean to us, then we’re really missing out. We’re really missing the point.