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I am almost 40 weeks pregnant. For anyone who isn’t pregnant and thus doesn’t count a life in weeks, this means my baby is almost cooked. She’s due tomorrow. I was convinced she’d be early, just like Milo, and I’ve been expecting her arrival since January. But she has given me an early warning that I am not to presume anything at all about her: that she is her own person and will make an appearance when she is good and ready.

I haven’t the heart to tell her that the medical profession may see it differently. If she doesn’t get a wriggle on soon it’ll be the Oxytocin drip for her; a tidal wave of chemical hormones designed to dislodge her no matter how bloody-minded she feels like being.

God, I’m good at creating bloody-minded children. I should get some sort of award.

I keep thinking, too, that Things Are Happening. I spent most of yesterday on the verge of tears, unable to settle to anything, and experiencing some impressive Braxton Hicks (practice contractions) that went on through the night. And this morning, instead of a slow ramping up of pain: nothing. Nadda. Back to square one. I feel like I’m going to be pregnant forever.

To take our minds off things we decide to go to Manchester Museum. The place is mobbed: buggies, children, harassed-looking parents, and wild, waddling women with a glint in the eye that says ‘mess with me at your peril’. And that’s just the three of us.

We scoot around the dinosaur section, say hello to Stan the T.Rex, decide that we would quite like dinosaurs to still be around – even if it means the occasional human ends up as dino fodder – and look at Milo’s latest interest: the solar system. For the first time in my life I not only know the names of all the planets but the dwarf planets too, and a fair few of their moons. I am thinking of naming my daughter Eris or Ceres. Or, if she doesn’t bloody well hurry up, I may just call her Uranus.

Blood sugar reaching perilous lows, we head to a chaotic café for lunch. I join a queue that snakes along the length of the cafe, wincing periodically as the air is sliced by the jagged voices of hungry children. After a while, I tune into the conversation of the couple behind me.

‘It’s terrible,’ hisses the man, and my ears prick up.

‘All those coats.’

The woman next to him murmurs something placatory.

‘No, but honestly, all those coats and bags and… and stuff, just everywhere.’

The man is muttering, his voice a pent-up, vicious whisper that indicates it’ll take more than a latte and double chocolate muffin to cheer him up. 

‘And the chairs, just pulled out with all those coats hanging off them. I mean, would it hurt just to pull them in a little, to be a bit more tidy?’

I am so confused I turn around and eyeball him. He meets my gaze blankly. And when I turn back round he carries on berating the people in the café for the apparently heinous social crime of taking their coats off while they eat.

At this point the woman behind the counter spots my enormous pregnant belly and beckons me over.

‘You don’t have to queue,’ she says, ‘we can’t have you standing there like that.’

I am whisked to the front and, just this once, being so close to my due date does apparently come with benefits. As I am waved to the head of the queue like gestating royalty, the look of outraged horror that contorts the face of the coat-hating man behind me – well, put it this way: it’s a look that made me laugh so much I’m hoping its recollection will see me through the un-funniest parts of childbirth.

Above: Help, mummy’s cross again. Simon and Milo make a run for it.

Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Kids’ menu but be warned: it’s expensive and very busy at weekends. There’s a free picnic area on the top floor if budgets and space are tight. Buggy-friendly? Yes, although you can also park your buggy in the foyer (they also have lockers for coats and bags). Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes.

Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 22:14:15 +0000

From: XXXX@hotmail.co.uk

Subject: Re: Felicidades

Hi Suse

Thanks for that, is it okay being pregnant again? I remember Sarah saying that the first time was a wonder of the world but the second one she was just a bit fed up with it by the third trimester…

Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 22:25:07 +0000

From: susie@XXXXX.co.uk

Subject: Re: Re: Felicidades

I didn’t enjoy it first time round and I’m not enjoying it this time round. The whole thing about you ‘blooming’ while pregnant is such a load of wanking crap.

First trimester: feel like you’re dying, feel sick 24/7 (yet strangely starving), utterly exhausted and worst of all you can’t tell anyone.

Second trimester: look fat, feel fat, bad skin, have to contend with the fact that people know you’re pregnant (cue unwanted advice; unwarranted belly-stroking) and also the ongoing, never-ending worry: will the baby be OK? But at least you don’t feel like you’re dying and, after the 20 week scan, you start to accept that yes, maybe things will work out.

Third trimester: can’t sleep, can’t breathe (lungs squashed by baby), need to wee all the time (bladder squashed by baby), weird dreams, worry about childbirth, can’t eat (stomach squashed by baby), can’t walk (baby’s head wedged between legs), can’t stand up for long (baby pressing down on pelvic floor), backache, acid indigestion, and generally going a bit mental. Last night I got woken up at 2am because I couldn’t breathe: it turns out I am anaemic and the buggers who were supposed to test my iron levels at 28 weeks plain forgot, leaving me to feel like the life was slowly being drained out of me for no reason other than a) I am old and b) I am pregnant.

All that, and half of the Mancunian medical profession thinks it’s perfectly OK to have a rummage about amongst your lady parts, usually without a formal introduction.

And then you have to give birth.

I’m sure some mothers do ‘bloom’ during pregnancy, just as I’m sure some of their newborns sleep through the night. If I ever meet one of those women I’ll probably hit them.

Bet you’re glad you asked now. :)

Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2011 22:46:47 +0000

From: XXXX@hotmail.co.uk

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Felicidades

Well that does expand on “a bit fed up”. Whilst my sympathy is with you my thoughts are with Simon, the poor bugger must have suffered :D

Thanks for giving me a laugh as I head out for a drink, if only I could print that out to take to the bar.. x

Dear David Cameron

Yesterday saw the largest peaceful demonstration by British students in generations. Over 50,000 converged on London to protest at your government’s lack of support for higher education.

Predictably, a minority caused violent damage and disorder.

Predictably, you and your colleagues leapt on this tiny minority and used their actions to deflect from the fact that the peaceful majority were protesting against your government’s grossly unfair policies.

Today you said, ‘”We won’t go back. Look, even if we wanted to, we shouldn’t go back to the idea that university is free.”

No one ever said university was free. It may have been free for you, sweetheart, as you look out from inside your wealthy, cushioned bubble, but it was not free for me.

I am 35. I paid off my student loans around the same time I became a mother – three years ago.

I have been working since I was 14. I worked all through university and when I did my full-time MA (which I paid for) I also worked full-time in order to support myself through it.

But I am one of the lucky ones. When I graduated, there were jobs. Not well-paid jobs (my first salary was £12,000 a year) but jobs all the same.

The problem is, Mr Cameron, that not everyone who goes to university will walk into a highly paid job at the end of it. They simply won’t be able to command the salary you need not to be crippled by the kind of debts you are forcing onto students now. But that’s not all. Graduates are among the hardest hit in this recession – they simply can’t get jobs that don’t exist, can they?

And the problem is, Mr Cameron, that middle class parents like myself – like I say, I am one of the lucky ones – now can’t save up for their own kids’ university fees because you abolished child trust funds.

Nice work, Mr. Cameron. How proud you must be.

So it seems, Mr. Cameron, that I, a girl from a working class background who has worked hard all her life, who made her parents proud by being the first in her family to go to university; it seems that I, now a hard-working middle class girl who has spent her career working in the public sector you seem so intent on destroying – it seems that this girl’s children may not be able to go to university after all.

I didn’t expect university to be free for my children, Mr. Cameron. I did, however, expect it to be within their reach.

I am so, so proud of those kids who turned out yesterday in their thousands – the ones who made their peaceful voices heard. You may try and deflect from the protest of the majority, you may try and dodge the inherent unfairness of your actions, but, Mr. Cameron, you are wrong.

You won’t go back? Well, my dear prime minister, I’d take issue with that.

You have already gone back. You have turned back the clock to a time when education was for the privileged few, only accessible to those whose parents were wealthy.

Shame on you, Mr. Cameron. Shame on you.

There was ice on our windows this morning. Nothing strange about that, you might think: it’s been bloody cold of late and there’s ice everywhere. Except there was ice on the inside of our windows this morning. And that’s why, despite having got up around 7.30am, Milo and I both stayed in bed until gone 9am, and attempted to get dressed under the duvet (we were surprisingly successful).

This week we have been in the grip of the worst winter in 30 years. Newspaper headlines scream of ‘ice land’ (i.e. the whole of the UK covered in snow), ‘snow storm’ (council bosses narked that teachers have been off, and schools closed, all week) and ‘the big freeze’ (motorways jammed by jack-knifed lorries).

But the big news for us this week centres on snowmen. Tuesday morning arrives and it soon transpires that no one is going anywhere. Our car is snowed in, the buses aren’t running and we can’t push the pushchair through the drifts, so Simon, Milo and I decide to stay at home, as does half our street.

Out front, our neighbours build a snow family: a mum and dad, two kids and then, in a final flourish, a dog and a cat. They sit proudly on the pavement, the sunlight glinting on their icy forms. I take a snap on the way back from the pub that evening (schools and offices may have been shut but it’s amazing how pubs and shops manage to stay open for business).

Something terrible occurs that evening, some time between getting home and getting up in the morning: the snow family are attacked, their hats and scarves stolen. Even the dog and cat get it: all six shapes have had their heads knocked off during the night.

Thing is, it’s not a one-off. We built a snowman in our front garden just before Christmas, sticking him on our garden wall. We woke up the next day and he’d gone. Not just his head or his scarf but the whole shebang: someone had stolen our snowman.

Milo took the news surprisingly well. Simon just shrugged and said, ‘People will nick anything,’ but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. I mean, who on earth would steal a snowman?

And other snowmen on other roads don’t appear to suffer the same fate: I’ve had plenty of time, as I’ve hefted and dragged the pushchair back from the childminder’s, to look at other people’s snowmen, and they’ve remained unmolested. No, what’s appears to be happening on our road is far more sinister. Our road, it seems, is in the midst of some sort of snow war.

Snowmen, snow families and snow animals: if you go down to our road today, you’d better go in disguise.

The signs don’t look good. In fact, the signs look non-existent: Milo and I have got off the train at Oldham and are staring at the weather beaten remains of a ‘you are here’ map. A woman approaches, but only to ask me if I know the way into town. As I explain that this is our first time here, she scans the faded map for clues.

‘It just feels a bit like…’

‘The end of the world?’ I offer.

She nods. Mind you, if we have been delivered to the end of the world, I can confidently report that the end of the world isn’t such a scary place: it consists of a roaring dual carriageway, gloomy subway and a station called Oldham Mumps.

‘Right then, let’s go this way,’ says the woman confidently.

I love this about us womenfolk: the in-built ability to wrap a complete lack of knowledge in the reassuring tones of mother-knows-best.

Milo and I follow her into the depths of the subway, emerging into the grey light of an unloved car park beyond. There is still no signage, just empty cars and, across the road, a couple of derelict houses. As I think that a map probably would have been useful at this point, I spot the familiar blue-and-white lettering of a ‘town centre’ sign in the distance.

We walk towards it, the woman and I chatting as we go. Milo twists up to look at her from his pushchair, giving her a sort of toddler death stare as he tries to work out whether she will be of any use to him. When it turns out that she has no toys or teacakes, he swivels back and stares resolutely ahead.

Eventually, the woman and I part company, her peeling off to the right and me reluctantly following the sign for Gallery Oldham that appears to direct me down a back alley. Just as I am about to turn on my heel and head for home, we round a corner – and a small miracle occurs. Here, where at first there appeared to be nothing at all, is a beautiful park: no half-dead summer flowers here, it’s all robust winter flowering plants and neat, winding paths. Opposite glows the entrance of the library and gallery: coloured lights gleam out and entice us in. Inside, we find cleverly-thought-out historic objects on display (Milo is predictably beguiled by an ancient motorbike, while I’m amused by a milk bottle with an Inspiral Carpets advert on it).

We stop and read in the library before heading up to the galleries in a lift lit by a deep green light. As the doors close, Milo and I turn monster green and we thunder around roaring and clawing like characters from Where the Wild Things Are. In fact, Milo is so excited that we have to ride up and down several times before he gets bored enough to submit to the galleries.

And these too prove to be a revelation. The views from the windows show moors and hills; the collections are solidly historic with a little contemporary stuff thrown in for good measure. One show celebrates the women of Oldham and provides a dressing up box for kids, earnestly encouraging little girls to think beyond nursing and childcare careers and instead embrace science, engineering and all the things their female forebears could only ever dream of doing.

So when we decide to head for home, emboldened by our success in Gallery Oldham (and in the flower-strewn town, too), Milo and I try an alternative route back. But rather than deserted car parks and thundering traffic, this time we’re met with a long, long, long road populated almost entirely by pubs, clubs, bars and dubious-looking establishments peddling rock-bottom deals on alcopops. I quicken my step and hurry on and, as I do, I can’t help but wonder how many people have given up and gone home before me, put off by bad roads and cheap booze, without ever getting to the real Oldham.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: No. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes, a wonderful and very genuine community centre that stocks great children’s books (in the library), has limited activities in the galleries for kids and offers a warm welcome to families in general.

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Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as a holiday once you’ve had kids. You can wave bye-bye to all those long, lazy brunches; and forget reading the papers or lounging around in cafes. Family travel means one thing: demands for 24/7 entertainment, toddler-style.

Or so we thought.

We’ve spent a few days with Milo in Brighton and Hove, running up and down beaches, making sandcastles, finding ‘family friendly’ (how I hate that phrase) attractions. We’re absolutely shattered. And then we get wind of what the locals-with-kids do: they head to St. Ann’s Well Gardens. There, along winding paths and through a play area that somewhat bizarrely includes a life-size jeep on springs, is a café.

And this being Hove (actually), it is no ordinary café. This is a cafe that could have been invented by The Guardian. It’s achingly middle class: fair trade coffee, bagels and brunch; the flutter of broadsheets; lo-fi posters for acoustic sessions adorning the walls; nutritious snacks for kids who long for sweets but have to make do with granola.

I love it. I haven’t been this excited about a place since I discovered that my local newsagent sells more copies of the weekend Guardian than anywhere else in the country.

We head to the back of the café. And this is where it gets really good because here, in a space created by the clever positioning of several squashy sofas, is a children’s play area. Milo sniffs it out immediately; by the time I am settled onto the sofa, he’s deep into the toy box. I look up to mention it to Simon but he’s already deep into the Guardian and I, it appears, am surplus to requirements.

It’s absolutely bloody heaven: for once, both Simon and I are free to drink coffee, eat breakfast and read the papers – all this without a sniff of guilt at not looking after our Precious First Born (as said PFB is happily playing with a few other toddlers and racing a found Thomas the Tank Engine up and down the back of the sofa).

We get a whole hour to ourselves before Milo gets restless and I have to put the paper down and gather up toys, books, camera and clothes. Simon looks up from the sports pages, a startled expression crumpling his face.

‘Do you think we could stay here for the rest of the day?’ he asks.

It’s a fair question. Sadly, with a toddler tugging at our trousers, we both know the answer.

‘But it was good for a while, wasn’t it,’ he says, looking around wistfully.

‘Mummy RUNNING!’ says Milo, and I have no time to reply; the boy is running for the door and then bursts back out into the park beyond. All good things have to come to an end – although if I ever find myself back in Brighton and Hove, I know where I’ll be heading.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Everything on the menu is available as a kid’s portion, plus there are Innocent-type drinks. Buggy-friendly? Yes, though they ask you to leave buggies outside when it’s busy (there’s a covered area outside). Cost: Not so cheap but oh so worth it. Hot meals for kids £3.25; sandwiches from £2.60; salmon and egg bagel, £5.25; Americano £1.50. Worth it? Oh my god, yes. Great park and the only café I’ve ever been in where I’ve been able to leave Milo to safely play without fear of him wandering off/being mowed down by a coffee-wielding adult. The only downside was the park: Milo asked me to carry the life-size jeep-on-springs home and got very upset when I said I couldn’t…

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I am remembering Manchester: we are trundling round town and I’m telling Simon about my first foray into the city.

‘I remember standing beneath the viaduct at Castlefield, listening to music ricochet off all that industrial architecture and dancing with the Dpercussion masses. I couldn’t imagine any other city in Britain pulling it off.’

Simon nods as he steers the buggy along Whitworth Street. I remember, too, stumbling along this same street years ago, on my way to the station after a job interview, entranced by the buildings looming up: all those textile warehouses built in homage to the god of commerce.

But now that I live here, the place strikes me as little more than a village. It’s not so much six degrees of separation but one. This is a city where you can sit in a café or a pub and talk about some bright idea and not long afterwards you’ll have found a loose group of people who can help you make it happen.

‘Like who?’ asks Simon, and I begin to reel off a list: the blog awards, Rainy City Stories, No Point Not Being Friends, In The City, Club Brenda, Unconvention, Sounds from the Other City, Futuresonic, the Literature Festival and even Dpercussion. This is what keeps me in Manchester, I think, the sense that, creatively speaking, we’ve never had it so good.

We head to Urbis for some art and grub. Inside, Milo plumps for a toasted cheese sandwich which, when it arrives, he promptly tries to chuck on the floor.

‘But Milo,’ says I, ‘it’s got dead flies on it. Don’t you want to eat some nice crispy dead flies?’

The boy peers suspiciously at the black sesame seeds that dot the top of the toastie, then demolishes it, only stopping to mumble ‘dead fly’ occasionally before shoving in another mouthful.

Flies ingested, we head up to Videogame Nation, where Milo plays with pixels and I remember why it is I hated Pacman. We dip into the Best of Manchester exhibition, too, me marvelling at just how beautiful Natalie Curtis’ pictures are and Simon, for someone who is almost always deeply unimpressed by The Youth, reasonably impressed by the collective creative talents on display. Milo, for his part, just wants to drive his cars up and down the benches. We hang out at Urbis a fair bit and he knows the score: he gets to eat dead fly sandwiches and play with cars; mummy gets to drink coffee and play at being an art critic.

Urbis has had its faults: its rocky start in life, as a museum of it-didn’t-quite-know-what, has been well documented. But in the past couple of years Urbis has turned itself around – with exhibitions like Emory Douglas, Videogame Nation and the soon-to-open British Hip Hop show. And, although I have worked for Urbis in the past, I remain a critical soul: I like my art to be good and I like the places I hang out to be worth it. Urbis is not by any stretch perfect. It still has a way to go. But I thought it could get there.

It appears it’ll never get the chance: Manchester City Council wants to offload this particular financial burden onto the private sector by turning it into a football museum. For a city that is so good in so many ways, that has finally started to ‘get’ culture by investing in things such as MIF, and that has recently put itself forward as one of the UK’s first cities of culture, it seems a strange decision. Why should it be one or the other – why pit culture against football? Why not have both?

I ponder on this as we wander back downstairs. And as we leave I wonder whether I will be coming back here quite so much when Milo is a bigger boy; whether the Council’s grand plan will simply reinforce Manchester’s shopping-and-football stereotype, and whether or not the newest, edgiest art and cultural commentary won’t be found in this so-called original and modern city but elsewhere. Further south.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: Yes, one of my favourite in the city centre. Good kids’ selection of both hot meals and sarnies. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes. Until they turn it into a football museum (no date yet but I’ll keep you posted), this has some of the most interesting exhibitions in Manchester. They generally have an eye on what kids need, too: there are usually activities and interactives for all ages, plus, during half terms and holidays, daily workshops and soft play in the foyer (workshops around £3). A welcome respite from city centre shopping: go now before it’s too late.

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