A short series of guest posts explores what it means to be a female author…
WOMANHOOD, MOTHERHOOD, WRITER-HOOD
By Tracey Scott-Townsend
I was twenty-one years old, a university drop-out – a wannabe writer living on the dole with a wannabe musician, Chris. Our love-at-first-sight and living-together-within-two-months relationship was emotionally abusive. We were probably both depressed.
I became pregnant by accident, having visited my family at Christmas and forgotten to take my Pills with me. I received a pale-pink jumper from Mum and some bangles from my brother. My mum’s friend took me aside and told me Mum did love me. Dad was an incidental presence in the corner, as usual. When he wasn’t at the pub, as usual.
I returned to Hull. By now Chris and I lived in separate rooms in a shared house. His room was the attic. He’d built a tower of used teabags against the wall and the cat litter tray overflowed. I had the downstairs front room with a bay window.
I recall the conception of Alice – I know it was the time I’m thinking of because Chris and I so rarely slept together. Afterwards I went downstairs and took the five contraceptive pills I’d missed.
Over the next weeks it dawned on me. Still, it couldn’t possibly be true. It couldn’t have happened, not to me! I fainted at a friend’s house and was sick all over the floor. My sister told me to go to the doctor. It was the best news and the worst news. I had trepidations about telling Chris and Mum but underneath the fear flowed a quiet undercurrent of joy. I wanted my baby. Chris was angry. Wanted nothing to do with it.
I started looking for a flat where I could live with my baby. She. I knew it was a girl. Alice. Genevieve. Sarah. Alice Sarah – no, Alice Hannah. Always Alice. I had a picture in my head of sitting on the grass with her in the park. In a telephone box outside that very park I plucked up the courage to tell my mother. I’m not surprised, she responded. Right. When I was fifteen weeks pregnant I telephoned again to ask if I might visit home. During the visit she didn’t mention the pregnancy but my dad did. He took an interest. He thought I should come home where I would have help. I had help already. I fiercely defended my boyfriend.
I returned to Hull. It was an unusually warm spring and I basked in the sunshine, trying in my way to eat healthily. A musician friend of ours was moving to a shared house on the estuary of the River Humber and the North Sea. There were spaces available in the house for unemployed young people. The idea was we would work on the ‘Kes project’ with young offenders – inspired by the Barry Hines novel. The boss owned actual Kestrels. Chris and I were both accepted. I was five months’ pregnant by this time. The property had once been a restaurant and I was given a room which used to be the bar. I painted the walls lilac and primrose. I saved up to buy a swinging cradle.
I wrote and I painted and I grew my baby. Sitting in a ray of sunshine in the communal living room one day the book I was reading leapt off my stomach. I smiled at my little dancer inside.
The ‘Kes project’ never came to fruition – I’m not sure what happened to the kestrels that lived in the outhouse – but the members of our household formed a strengthening community. The year I lived at Kilnsea has stayed with me so powerfully that the location has appeared in three of my four published novels. Blackmore House becomes ‘Blackberry House’ in The Last Time We Saw Marion and Of His Bones and ‘Running Hare House’ in The Eliza Doll. The Eliza Doll is the closest story to my own history. Like me, Ellie moves there with her musician boyfriend while pregnant with his baby. But there the story diverges from mine. The community in Running Hare House runs a successful arts project. And Ellie’s baby is born alive. She names her Rosie.
When I was six months’ pregnant Chris took the handle of the maroon carrycot-pram that had just been delivered and wheeled it through to my room. It seemed he might be coming round to being a father. I spent the final Friday of my pregnancy shopping for baby stuff. Amongst other things I bought a yellow cellular blanket and a pram sheet. On Saturday evening I watched Pamela Stevenson on television talking about breastfeeding her daughter and I knew, I somehow knew I was never going to have my baby. The following day I voiced concerns to my housemates that I hadn’t felt the baby move all day and someone reassured me that this is fairly normal at a certain stage of pregnancy. I went to see my GP who listened for the baby’s heartbeat and it seemed an interminable time before he assured me he had heard it, nevertheless I felt a niggling worry. He referred me for an Ultrasound scan after my Parent-craft class the next day. During the class I spoke up about my concern over the lack of movement and again people said it would be okay. At the scan the radiologist stepped out of the room for a moment without explaining why. I lay, feeling my fingertips going numb. A few moments later she returned with a consultant. “I’m sorry Mrs Wilson,” he said (they addressed every mother as Mrs, back then) “There’s no sign of life down there.”
They thought I’d already been told.
I undertook the long bus journey back to the estuary village. Seeing my face, the bus driver quipped, “Cheer up, it might never happen!”
Chris met me off the bus and led me by the hand through the living room of Blackmore House. A housemate left a tray of tea outside my room. Another brought me a poster of a peacock and a third came to my window with a yellow rose from the garden. We had planned a visit to the local pub, the windows of which looked out on two sides over the salt marshes and the estuary. I insisted Chris went along with the others. Intermittently I awoke in my bed and focused my eyes on the blue lamps on my bedroom wall, and remembered.
I spent one last day (my choice) as the vessel for my dead baby. We walked along the cliff above Kilnsea beach. In the absence of a grave, I’ll always think of those now greatly-receded cliffs as her resting place.
The next day we took the bus to Hull’s old Maternity Hospital. Walking down the corridor I heard moans from behind closed doors and thought it was a place where mothers like me came to give birth. (Six years later the midwife who greeted me when I was admitted for the birth of my first son told me that she remembered me from before.)
Chris had to catch the last bus home. During the night a cleaner entered my room. Seeing that I was awake, she asked if I was excited.
Early the next morning the midwives became silent as my daughter was finally extracted after a far-too-late epidural that I hadn’t wanted. Confirming that she was a girl, I asked if she was ‘all right’ and they said “No, love, she’s not.” My baby had what I later learned is called Exomphalos – her abdominal wall hadn’t formed properly and her respiratory organs were on the outside of her body. They wrapped her tightly and offered me the chance to hold her. I was numb physically and emotionally but I gazed down at her miniature face with its closed eyes and the one, tiny hand peeping out of the wrappings. I absorbed her features into my memory. Then I handed her back. I was wheeled to a room in the Ante-natal ward because they felt it inappropriate to place me with the postpartum mothers and their living babies.
This story is who I am as a writer. That’s the only way I can explain it. All my novels have a lost child in them, I find it hard to keep the resonance of that formative experience out of anything at all that I write. In a way my experience of the loss seems to echo back into my childhood when my mother read me Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Baby Peter, having flown away for far too long, rattles the bars he finds on his mother’s bedroom window, glimpsing her curled up inside with a new baby. She has forgotten him!
But I know his mother could never have forgotten him. Since Alice, I’ve given birth to four more children: three sons and a daughter. Pregnant with Faye, I felt somehow from the way she moved inside me that she was a girl. It brought back powerful sensory memories of the way Alice had moved. I think this physical knowledge is what makes a mother – certainly myself as a mother – female-centric as a writer. I perceive this influence strongly in some other mother-writers: Julie Myerson, for example.
I write my female characters as corporeal women. They are earthy. At the same time sex for them is an emotional experience. They birth, they breastfeed, they manage a multitude of tasks whilst dealing with a baby on one hip and a toddler clinging to their hand. Children are incredibly present. A fact often ignored for the sake of the story in literature and TV drama. For me it is part of the story.
My youngest child is eighteen now and just about to leave home. My children continue to be an influence in my writing to the extent that my WIP is actually partly-written by my youngest son, who’s a world-traveller. The novel is called The Vagabond Mother, about a woman who takes to the road in search of her son. Before that I tried to write a novel about a childless woman but it turned out that she’d had an abortion in her youth and the loss has haunted her ever since. The title of that book, currently sitting with agents, is Sea Babies.
My four published novels are: The Last Time We Saw Marion, Another Rebecca, The Eliza Doll and Of His Bones.
I’m unable to separate my womanhood – my motherhood – from my writer-hood and it was the same in my former profession as a visual artist. The domestic is the face of the deeper story within and it’s that story I try to express.
About the Author
Tracey Scott-Townsend writes uncompromising fiction based around family and relationships with motherhood at its heart. Sense of place is equally important, with Yorkshire and the Sea playing a powerful role in her novels. Her books are published by Inspired Quill and Wild Pressed Books. Tracey writes in a garden shed which she’s currently recreating in a sectioned-off area of the spare room at her new home. She has four grown children and she enjoys travelling in a converted van with her husband and their two rescue dogs