We all have places so familiar that our feet instinctively know where they’re going. Places where if you were blindfolded you could probably still find your way. Without looking at the street names, or taking notice of landmarks, you get to where you need to go. You don’t have to pay attention because you’ve walked those routes so many times. They’re as familiar to you as your own home is.
I have three places like that. I’ve lived in them long enough for their streets to feel like long lost friends to me every time I return. One of them I live in, the other I return to on a regular basis, the third I visit far too infrequently. There are other places in between. Places where I know the street, the fields, the woodland. Places where we lived for a few months or a year or two, long enough to have a familiarity with their streets, but not long enough to feel as if those places were home. The three places that I hold close to my heart are Cape Town, Cambridge and Leicester. The place of my birth and early childhood, the place I grew up and the city where I began to learn how to be who I am.
I was born on the 4th January 1986. It’s not a particularly important day, historically. A fair bit happened soon after: the Challenger Disaster, Chernobyl, never mind the fact that the 1980’s were a time of political upheaval globally. But on that day, across the world, nothing much was happening. I was always a little disappointed by that, mostly because I really love history and I was a bit of a precocious little brat who liked to sprout random facts and useless bits of knowledge to anyone who would listen to me. I just know I would have loved telling anyone and everyone what had happened on my birthday.
I was born via emergency C-section, after about 26 hours of labour. A fair bit of this time was spent by my mother trying to convince the doctors that I was the wrong way round. I don’t know too much about what was available in hospitals around South Africa at that time, but I do know that my mother never had an ultrasound with me. I don’t think they were available. All they had to go on were external and internal examinations. My mother was adamant my head was by her ribs. The doctor was equally adamant that I just had a large backside and that’s what my mother was feeling. I mean, it’s not like she’d been carrying me around for 8 and a half months, getting familiar with how I behaved and which direction I was. She was also toughing it out with gas and air. As my mother tells it, the doctor proceeded to tell her how sweet it was that I had my hand on my head (to this day I always wonder how I would have managed to come out with my hand on my head, but hey, doctors know best, right?). What happened next was…my foot came out. That cute little hand on my head was actually my foot tucked up against my backside.
Mother 1. Doctor 0. What the doctor didn’t know, and what I’ve subsequently learnt over the years is that my mother is always right. Even when she isn’t. I would like to thank that doctor, not only for telling my mother I had a big backside before I was even born, but for being the reason I was born with dislocated hips.
There was no anaesthesiologist in the hospital. I mean, I’m sure there were a few, but they were all busy. The particular anaesthesiologist for the maternity ward was nowhere to be found. As I said, my mother was toughing it out. No epidural, which would have made the whole process a lot simpler, just gas and air. 4 hours later they managed to find someone to put my mother out and get me out. It wasn’t the anaesthesiologist on call, it was someone else. The guy who was supposed to be there turned up the next day, wandering around in his slippers, and made some quip about my mother having a bit of a difficult time of it the night before. He’s really lucky she didn’t punch him in the face. My mother is a pretty formidable woman. It was probably the drugs wearing off and the stitches that prevented her from venting her feelings.
She wasn’t conscious when I was born. I was her first child, and I think it’s always been a bit upsetting to her that she wasn’t conscious. It’s why she’s always touted the benefits of an epidural to me. I usually respond with the fact that there are ultrasounds now, and anaesthesiologists who actually do their jobs. My father met me first. There’s a picture of me, dummy in my mouth, scrunched up face barely visible in the blanket, tiny in the arms of my father, with his 80’s hair and moustache, looking tired but pleased as punch, winking at the camera. When my mother woke up from the operation he asked her if she wants to meet her son. My mother told him to stop being stupid, she knows she had a daughter.
Like I said, my mother is always right.
I suppose the reason the doctor scoffed at her insistence that he was wrong about the position I was in was partially because she was so very young when she had me. She was 21, a week and a half away from turning 22. My parents had been married nearly 2 years. As I write this, aged 28, unmarried and childless, I can’t quite fathom just how young they were. They’ve never regretted it. It’s just how it was done in their generation, particularly in their community. You found someone, you married them and, as they were Catholic, unless the priest told you you could take contraception, you found yourself with a child not that soon afterwards. Apparently they did try the calendar method (my parents are quite open about things I sometimes wish they weren’t open about). I am one of many people who are proof that the calendar method doesn’t work.
They met when they were children. I can’t say that they were childhood sweethearts, because they weren’t, really. My mother was friends with my father’s sister. They went to the same church, and vaguely knew the same people. My father grew up in a large and loving family. My mother grew up in a large family, in a house of neglect and emotional abuse, with two alcoholic parents. Over time my father’s family became more her family as she was welcomed into their home. At the time my mother found my father rather annoying, but, as I said, she was friends with his sister.
They had various other boyfriends and girlfriends. My mother was in one long term relationship before my father, with a guy she liked but didn’t love. I suppose she was 16 at the time, and it was a way of getting out of her house. I don’t really know about my father. Around the time that my mother was 17/18 her and my father started going out. I don’t know too much about their relationship before their marriage. I do know my father (who has always slept talked and slept walked) had to be physically dragged out of his car in the middle of the night, in nothing but his pants, by my grandfather, as he tried to sleep drive his car to my mother. Which is both a sweet and terrifying story.
As I said, back in my parent’s day, in their community, you met someone, you fell in love, you got engaged, you got married. So my parents got engaged. They were due to get married when my mother was 19. The wedding was planned, the dress was bought, the church booked and reception organised. My father went to work somewhere else in South Africa for a few months before the wedding. Three months before he was due to come home and marry my mother he broke up with her.
My mother has had 4 engagement rings. She has only ever been engaged to my father. The first one she threw at him when he came back from wherever he was working.
For 6 months my parents were apart. My mother was in another relationship 3 months after they broke up. She tells me now she had no feelings for this man, she only wanted to get back at my father and have him come crawling back to her. Her words, not mine. It worked, they got back together and the wedding was back on. My mother’s parents refused to pay anything towards this wedding, as they’d paid for the other and had lost out. They managed to sort something out and, on the 30th May 1984, they married. My mother was at teacher training college, my father was a manager at a supermarket. As I’ve said before, less than 2 years later they had me.
In contrast to England, January is a glorious month to be born in South Africa. The sun always seems to shine on my birthday. The temperature is perfect. I honestly can’t remember it ever raining on my birthday. Instead it’s all blue skies and white fluffy clouds. I was born with new-born jaundice, a little bit more than is normal. The perfect January weather mean that instead of being put in an incubator with the light on, they could just place me in the incubator by the window. I think my love of feeling the warm rays of the sun possibly stem from those first couple of days. Three days after I was born my mother and I headed home.
I was never really a Mommy’s girl. My mother struggled to breastfeed me. At 6 weeks old, with the doctor rather concerned for my weight, my mother switched to bottle feeding. From about that same age I started sleeping through the night. Great for my parents, right? The difficulty came in getting me to sleep. Each night my mother would walk me around the area in the pram. She’d push me up and down the corridor of their flat, trying desperately to get her screaming baby to sleep. There were times that she would take me out for a drive, hoping the motion of the car would sooth me to sleep. At her wits end, on the verge of tears herself, she’d hand me over to my father when he’d come in from the pub or wherever and tell him to get me to sleep.
5 minutes later the flat would be silent. She’d look through into the living room to find my father fast asleep on the sofa, me curled up on his chest.
She got her own back when I started to talk. She was an early years teacher, primarily focussed on teaching pre-school children. So she knows a fair bit about childhood development. She knew that there was a strong chance my first word would be Dada and she wasn’t having any of it. Instead she taught me bye-bye. She was determined that that would be my first word. It was.
Dada was my second.
I hit all my developmental milestones roughly when I should: sitting, crawling, talking, standing etc. I was taking a long time to walk. My mother took me to the doctor. From the sounds of it he decided she was a panicky young mother, didn’t give me a check-up and dismissed her concerns by telling her that I was just a slow learner.
A slow learner with a big arse. Thanks doctors!